Thursday, February 19, 2009

Transparency Not Either

I recently described a state bill to create a website that would enable the public to see MCPS purchases - and my testimony at Annapolis requesting to remove the $10K threshold. To recap, the legislators didn't seem interested in the removal idea. I have since found out that they did exactly the opposite! Yes, they raised the threshold to $25K.

My only thought: We must vote these people out of office at the next opportunity. Let me know if you have better suggestions.

Montgomery County's Turn

Now Montgomery County is considering a similar bill for county purchases, Council Bill 1-09. Curiously, it has the same problem - the bill only requires transparency for purchases $25K or higher. What is with these people that they cannot think of amounts less than $25K?

The county council is scheduled to take action on this bill next week (Feb 24 2009) so you still have several days to weigh in. I submitted essentially the same letter that I did to the state but this time focusing more clearly on the limit, even going so far as to put my thrust in the subtitle in English that even a 5th grader would understand. Here it is:

Comments On Bill 1-09 Finance - Spending Disclosure

Summary: Good bill but would be better if the $25,000 limit was removed.

Don Libes
February 5, 2009

I strongly support the intent of Bill 1-09 - to provide transparency of county purchases. But while thousand dollar purchases need disclosure, so do smaller ones. Many inappropriate purchases are less than a thousand dollars or even a hundred dollars - exorbitant lunches and gifts, unjustifiable travel, and so on. Limits, whether $25,000 or $10,000, are easy to avoid. It’s not hard to break up a million-dollar purchase of electronic whiteboards or computers in to groups of purchases that fall below the limit. It requires little effort to do - a few more clicks of the mouse.

So pass the bill but without dollar limits and without qualifying words such as “aggregate” that could delay disclosure. Rather, the website should report any purchase that the county tracks using its existing financial management system. The cost of this change would be negligible given that the purchases are already in an existing database. And disk space is cheap. $100 buys enough space to hold decades worth of purchase information.

We should take a cue from our new president. On his first day of office, President Obama issued a memorandum indicating that, unless there is a justifiable reason to withhold information, records must be public by default. If there is a justifiable reason for the $25K limit, I have yet to hear it. Disclosure should not have to wait for specific requests from the public.

I close with the following words from Obama's memorandum. Accountability is in the interest of the government as well as the citizenry. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.

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