California Cities among Nation’s Best and Worst at Showing Where They Spend Money

Friday, January 25, 2013

California government has gone from crummy to crummier in providing its residents with a clear view of how the state spends its money, but its cities are among the nation’s best and worst, according to a study by the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG).

The independent watchdog group gave California a D- in March 2012 for its lack of transparency, noting that Governor Jerry Brown shut down its 2-year-old “Reporting Transparency in Government” website in November 2011. The searchable location wasn’t very user friendly and had big gaps in available information, but was deemed better than what followed, which was nothing. Only six states received a worse rating.

Brown said in 2011 that curious citizens could hunt down whatever information they sought at primary sources or via California’s Open Records Act. They were also free to poke around in databases at the Fair Political Practices Commission, the State Controller’s Office, the Bureau of State Audits or the Department of General Services’ eProcurement website.

CALPIRG was blunt about what Brown’s move meant: “Without a central location for the data, the state simply lacks the digital infrastructure to build upon.”

But some California cities have done better than the state. In a CALPIRG study of 30 big cities released this month, San Francisco ranked third nationally, with an A- score of 90, in providing online access to information about government spending. New York and Chicago came closest to a perfect score of 100, both checking in at 98.

San Diego and Los Angeles both received a C- for their scores of 69 and 68, respectively. Riverside got a D- for its 54 and Sacramento was one of five cities that earned an F. Its score of 44 was only underperformed by Cleveland and its 41. Sacramento was downgraded for failing to provide historical data, tax subsidy information, a centralized transparency website and “checkbook-level spending data that is searchable by city department, keyword, and vendor and is downloadable for data analysis.” 

The scores were based on 12 criteria of transparency, including the availability of spending data, contract details, historical expenditures, downloadable material, historical budgets and comprehensive annual financial reports.

Thirteen of the 30 city governments lacked an online database with “checkbook-level” detail of their expenditures. Six of the other 17 have the database, but it isn’t searchable and eight haven’t made their information downloadable.

Only five cities provided copies of contracts with vendors, the same number that revealed tax subsidies to companies and individuals. And only 13 cities had a centralized portal with government spending documents and tools.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Cities Are Best & Worst for Spending Transparency (CALPIRG)

Transparency in City Spending (CALPIRG)

Following the Money (CALPIRG)

Following the Money 2012—How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data (CALPIRG Education Fund) (pdf)

Leave a comment