Watchdog group unveils municipal transparency 'blueprint'
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Published: 15-Mar-2010

A new “blueprint” from Oklahomans for Responsible Government (OFRG) is bringing fresh scrutiny to bear on Oklahoma municipalities, aiming to detail how much vital information taxpayers can glean from websites for the governments of cities with 5,000 or more in population.

The new report from OFRG uses 10 criteria developed by SunshineReview.org. Those criteria are Budgets, Meetings, Elected Officials, Administration Officials, Permits & Zoning, Audits, Contracts, Lobbying, Public Records and Taxes.

OFRG describes itself as “a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting fiscal responsibility, transparency, and accountability in state government.”

SunshineReview.org is a national advocate for government transparency.

The national group’s work similarly served as a template for OFRG’s first “blueprint for transparency” which, last summer, pressed for greater openness in records made available online for Oklahoma’s hundreds of public school districts.

A recent scandal involving the public schools of Skiatook, Oklahoma has helped make the case for greater transparency and openness in government, OFRG executive director Brian Downs said in an interview today (Monday, March 15).

Downs told CapitolBeatOK said, “We’re using Skiatook as an example -- as Exhibit A, in fact. Taxpayers need to take an interest and learn about issues themselves. They need to ask questions of their school board members, and insist that the board members exercise real oversight, dig in and ask questions of the superintendent and others who are responsible.

“It’s really the same way across the board with all aspects of government – taxpayers and voters must use their rights as citizens, asking real questions of their elected representatives. Those representatives must be pressed to do their job, a lot of which is to ask questions of those running agencies and programs about how money is being spent, why it’s being spent that way. Citizen and their representatives must push for transparency, disclosure, openness and honesty from those who work for us.”

Oklahoma Auditor & Inspector Steve Burrage said his office is investigating serious accounting discrepancies in a total of six public school districts. In the Skiatook scandal, members of the school board forced the resignation of the superintendent of schools. A grand jury investigation is being advocated by some local citizens.

As for the newest “blueprint” focused on municipalities, Downs said in a prepared statement, “The report shows that most cities should be providing much more information to taxpayers, especially when it comes to budgets and taxes. Since cities represent the most fundamental form of government to most Oklahomans, they should also be the most transparent.”

In today’s release, OFRG said that only 15 of 75 cities examined fully met six or more criteria. Further, only the city of Owasso (near Tulsa) met all ten. OFRG reported, “The size of a city doesn’t necessarily mean it has a website with more information on it. Three cities with fewer than 10,000 residents scored very well in our report: Blackwell, Sallisaw and The Village. Four of the cities (Cushing, Idabel, Lone Grove and Vinita) have no website.”

Downs said, “Once a city has a website, it’s just a question of uploading the correct information. We hope that cities will use this report as a guideline to improve their websites and taxpayers will use the information to hold their elected officials accountable.”

Downs said an electronic copy of the Blueprint for Transparency has been sent to the city managers of all 75 cities. OFRG promised to welcome opportunities to discuss the “sunshine” criteria with each city as well as ways they can improve transparency provided by the websites. The full analysis can be examined online at: www.ofrg.org.

The municipal report from OFRG comes in the wake of several steps at the state Capitol to expand government spending transparency. On March 2, the state House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation dubbed “Open Books 2.0,” a measure sponsored by state Rep. Ken Miller of Edmond, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.

Miller’s proposal, House Bill 3422, would require that purchases made with state funds are disclosed on an online database (regardless of amount), that Internet data for government expenditures be searchable and easily exportable into separate documents, and that the Office of State Finance create an online archive for older data.

Also on March 2, the House passed House Bill 3253, from state Rep. Gus Blackwell of Goodwell to get all state school district spending onto the state Department of Education’s website. The companion bill to H.B. 3253 -- Senate Bill 1633, sponsored by state Sen. Randy Brogdon of Owasso -- also passed.

Other proposals under consideration at the Capitol this year would require specialized training for school auditors, and improved search functions. OFRG believes conflict of interest regulations for school districts would also help avoid scandals and other problems. OFRG has supported proposals along these lines. The group also provided support for a more conservative approach to “rainy day fund” issues when Republican leaders and the governor were disagreeing over how much to deplete the constitutional reserve.

In a February 9 blog posting at www.blog.ofrg.org, OFRG pointed to another example of the efficacy of online disclosure. State Commerce Department information became available that date, and OFRG discovered that excessive prices had been paid for pickups, using federal stimulus dollars intended for weatherization of low-income homes.

In January, OFRG introduced a “Scorecard” assessing lawmakers on taxpayer transparency and government accountability issues.

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