A proposal to require local governments to provide detailed information about their online expenditures is being praised as a step toward transparency, but some question whether small towns can afford it.
House Bill 762, sponsored by Rep. John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, establishes the “Missouri Municipal Government Expenditure Database.”
The database would include information about a given municipality’s spending and the vendors to whom payments were made. The data required is similar to what would be kept in a checkbook. It would basically include how much money was spent, on what it was spent on and to whom the expenditures go.
All this information would be downloadable and free. If a municipality fails to comply, the bill establishes that there be a fine of no more than $100 per day.
Wiemann doesn’t think this is an unreasonable expectation for local governments.
Patrick Ishmael, director of government accountability at the Show-Me Institute, said the institute started a project two years ago where they tracked state spending, which encompasses billions of dollars, and there was no information of where the money was going.
Ishmael started making requests to local governments for this information but some of the municipalities and cities made it hard to get. Battlefield, Missouri, for example, wanted $35,000 for their checkbook, he said.
Opponents of the bill argued that smaller cities don’t have the budget to provide this information. But Ishmael said Lowman and Philmore, Missouri, both very small cities, provided him with the checkbook for free.
“The notion that cities cannot provide this information doesn’t fit with reality,” said Ishmael. “It’s not about city size, it’s about city culture.”
Richard Sheets, deputy director of the Missouri Municipal League, an organization that works to develop cooperation between Missouri cities, testified in opposition of the bill. He believes that there should be transparency, but that it shouldn’t be mandatory for local governments to provide this information.
“There are various size cities with various county systems with various different types of computer systems,” said Sheets.
He also thinks that charging for this information is a prerogative of the city, because someone has to do all the work to get the information, sometimes stored in warehouses, and doing so consumes public resources and time.
Ishmael argues that if the state makes it voluntary, the same people who are currently charging big amounts of money for the checkbooks will not collaborate.
“If you can take money from people, the least that you can do is tell people how you’ve been spending it,” said Ishmael.