Sunday, February 28, 2010

Public Advocate de Blasio pushes (voluntary) transparency for Council earmarks, discretionary funds from mayor and borough presidents

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio announced on February 24 a new government web site that will detail how elected officials--City Council members, the mayor, and borough presidents--spend discretionary funds.

It's a good idea, but, as the Daily News noted in an editorial today, a web site based on voluntary compliance isn't enough.

Moreover, as the Daily News pointed out, City Council President Christine Quinn "should have instituted this type of disclosure long ago" regarding "the Council's $50-million-a-year slush fund... a font for thievery." (Indeed, former Council Member Miguel Martinez is n prison and Council Member Larry Seabrook has been indicted.)

Public Advocate or Comptroller

I'll add that it's not necessarily something the Public Advocate must do, since Comptroller candidate David Yassky had the same idea during his campaign, and even set up a web site, It's Your Money NYC, featuring 2009 budget data (but not 2010 budget data), albeit limited to Council Members.

The value of transparency

Such transparency should be part and parcel of city government. I had to request capital budget data last year to learn, as I wrote last May, some $24.6 million, more than a third of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's 2009 capital budget, was directed to the $64 million amphitheater planned for Asser Levy Park in Coney Island, home of one of the two summer concert series Markowitz has long sponsored.

From de Blasio's announcement
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio today announced the new website Open Government NYC, which will make local public funding more transparent and accessible for all New Yorkers. The website will serve as a hub for elected officials to disclose grant applications they receive before making discretionary funding decisions. Open Government NYC will be an easy to use site for the public to search member items, or discretionary funds out of the expense budget, distributed by the Mayor, City Council, and Borough Presidents.

“Transparency is the best way to prevent potential fraud,” Public Advocate de Blasio said. “This new website will give New Yorkers a window into how their government works, and will provide an important safeguard against misuse of public dollars. I look forward to working with all my partners in government to bring a new level of transparency to City Hall.”

The new website, which will be up by mid-April, will increase transparency regarding budgetary decision making by showing detailed information on applications for discretionary funds.

Open Government NYC builds upon a series of measures implemented by Speaker Quinn and the City Council to increase transparency about city government. The website follows the model of the state’s Project Sunlight, which discloses statewide governmental information that is otherwise difficult to find.

Open Government NYC will be easy to use and allow visitors to search applications by date, applicant's name, and elected official. Government offices will be able to submit the information to the website. Participants will disclose their applications as they receive them and will disclose the member items they choose to fund immediately after the budget’s passage.

Participation will be voluntary and the Public Advocate will reach out to Council Members, Borough Presidents, and the Mayor to participate in this initiative.
Coverage in the Times

The Times reported, in an article headlined Public Advocate Wants to Shine a Light on Earmark Funds:
The proposal, which will be formally announced on Thursday, is designed to give the public a fuller picture of an opaque process that has led to a wide-ranging criminal inquiry by federal and city investigators. One former city councilman, Miguel Martinez, is serving a five-year prison sentence for absconding with $106,000, some of which was intended for nonprofit groups. Another councilman, Larry B. Seabrook, was indicted this month on charges that he fraudulently used city money to enrich himself, friends and family members.

City officials have long used the funds, known as earmarks, to aid nonprofit groups on small projects in their districts without going through a formal competitive bidding process. But investigations have shown that some of the nonprofit groups were fictitious or employed the relatives of lawmakers.

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