Councilwoman Felicia Moore's transparency 'quest' continues

Thursday October 30, 2014 05:23 pm EDT


For weeks, Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore and Mayor Kasim Reed have publicly feuded over the longtime councilwoman's request to directly access the city's financial records. That feud boiled over last week when Reed, accusing Moore of a politically motivated "naked power grab," declined to provide the councilwoman with a way to directly monitor how the city spends public funds.

Reed has maintained that he and his administration have been transparent and that Moore's push is politically motivated as she prepares for a potential run for Council president. But Moore, who last week asked the public to help her pressure the mayor, is now turning to her fellow councilmembers to help her push for transparency. That started yesterday with a presentation during Council's Finance and Executive Committee meeting.

“I’m not going to let this issue go," Moore said during the meeting. "No is not an acceptable answer.”

After initially asking for access to a wide range of documents, Moore told councilmembers she scaled back her request to the city's financial records. Moore said that her desire to personally check in and view City Hall expenditures isn't unreasonable. Similar technology has been used in large and small cities across the country, she said. Moore also said the costs associated with improving access to public documents would be relatively small and make sense given that much of the data is already internally accessible through computers at City Hall.

In 2013, local watchdog organization Georgia Public Interest Research Group gave Atlanta a "F" grade for its spending transparency practices due to the city's lack of a "comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility." Citing that report, Moore pointed to large cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles where residents have been give varying degrees of access to financial records. That data, she says, can often be seen in real-time and downloaded by citizens. In Georgia, the state posts audits, salaries, and reimbursements that are searchable by employee title and organization, she noted.

Moore said other cities' residents can search data about who's spending money, expenditure details, vendor lists, and settlements. That's happening in Prairie Village, Ks., a 21,000-person town that works with Vision Internet, the same online vendor as City Hall. Moore argues that making those improvements could help the city slash expenses. For example, city staffers could save time by fulfilling fewer open record requests.

"It's financial data that's live and accessible to the public at any time," said Moore, noting that early estimates suggest that it would only cost the city as little as $5,000. "Due to the company's previously relationship with the city, it could be easily implemented here."

According to Common Cause Georgia Executive Director William Perry, any improvement in increasing transparency, including making city's spending documents more accessible, would help build the public's trust in City Hall. Perry, who's publicly sparred with Reed many times over airport concessions and the Atlanta Falcons stadium, doesn't think the mayor's administration has always fully complied with Georgia's Open Records Acts. He says "sensible" open government practices are needed given what he claims are past violations of state law.

"Hardly anyone trusts the mayor," Perry tells CL. "This mayor runs the city like a dictatorship - even worse so, because you're not allowed to work against him or question his decisions. It completely violates the public's trust when you have somebody who engages in the type of behavior he does when he runs this city... Being more transparent would certainly help him and help citizens trust the decisions being made."

In a lengthy statement, Reed spokeswoman Jenna Garland tells CL that city officials have "significantly enhanced access to information for residents" through numerous initiatives including ATL311, the city's new non-emergency call center; government hackathons to partner with developers to improve city services; and providing data to the Atlanta Regional Commission's interactive data website Neighborhood Nexus. She says Code for America fellows also worked with the city to further improve transparency. In addition, the city's Focus On Results team will soon launch an interactive website with additional performance data. Some departments, she notes, choose to post own their data online.

However, Reed's office disagrees with Moore's assertions that a new public website allowing citizens and officials to look at spending transparency practices would cost as little as $5,000. Garland elaborates:

Councilmember Moore’s assertion that a transparency website to outline the City’s spending transactions could cost as little as $5,000 is unfounded and naïve. Startup costs can vary widely and are a critical concern for most cities seeking to expand their transparency with the public. New York City spent more than $2.4 million on their systems lauded by Georgia PIRG’s report. Additionally, the cities with high rankings in Georgia PIRG’s report already have 311 systems up and running for their citizens. The Administration chose to prioritize enhancing our customer service offerings before tackling other transparency efforts. Another barrier and cost driver to programs like Checkbook NYC is how individual city departments handle data differently. Standardizing transparency data takes time, clearing hurdles, and financial resources.

Mayor Reed is committed to Atlanta becoming a leading open source city. The Administration is excited about the future of technology in our city, and proud of the strides we have made to enhance government transparency.

Councilmember Moore is doing nothing but creating a false controversy. Information has been provided routinely to Councilmember Moore in this process for many years, even predating this Administration. It is unfair to single out the City of Atlanta as the only government in the entire State of Georgia to provide this type of access to a member of the legislative body.

Two of Moore's colleagues voiced interest in her proposal (Councilwoman Mary Norwood already came out in support). Councilmembers Natalyn Archibong and Alex Wan both called Moore's proposal "very intriguing" and said that the legislative body needed to craft better open government policies. They said a work session might be organized to look further into possible ways to improve the city's spending transparency practices.

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