Mandel wants all public checkbooks online

Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel is drafting a letter to 3,900 cities, counties and school districts in Ohio offering to help them follow his lead and document every penny they spend on a user-friendly website — at no charge.

If they ignore the offer, Mandel says they can expect a phone call from his office. If they still ignore him, he plans to propose ordinances or push local governments to open their books.

“If they ignore all those things, I’m going to start showing up at city council meetings and school board meetings and I’m going to demand that these local government officials put the finances online because the people have the right to know,” Mandel said in a recent interview with the I-Team.

Mandel in December put online seven years of state transactions, giving the public unprecedented access to browse state expenditures at their leisure. State lawmakers introduced a bill this week that would require future treasurers to maintain the database, which has garnered bipartisan praise.

Elected officials in area cities are receptive to working with Mandel.

“Obviously I’m in favor of being as open and transparent as government can be, so I’d be happy to look at it,” said Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland, a Democrat.

Republican Mayor Brian Jarvis of Beavercreek said, “I’ll certainly offer up our city as an opportunity for that.”

Huber leads way

Residents peeking into the books of some area cities will find they are already paying to set up websites similar to what Mandel’s office is offering for free.

Huber Heights, for example, announced last month that it entered into a $8,500-a-year contract with California-based OpenGov to put a “financial transparency portal” on the city’s website.

Huber’s portal currently gives a department-level breakdown of the budget, showing debt service comprising 41 percent of the city’s $94 million budget, for example. Officials hope to have a line-item level checkbook online soon.

“We have no problem at all with having residents have exposure to as deep (of information) as we can possibly put out,” said Huber Heights City Manager Rob Schommer, who said he’ll consider switching to Mandel’s website next year when it comes time to renew with OpenGov.

Schommer welcomes an inquisitive public, he said, so he can explain things such as that the huge debt service budget is money recently borrowed for large projects, and that the amount will drop once it’s financed on a long-term basis.

Huber’s effort has won praise from even that city’s most ardent critics.

“I don’t see how anyone could say it’s a bad thing,” said Emery Phipps, co-founder of the Brick City Watchdogs. “As a citizen who … has been trying to look at everything the city is doing with a fine-tooth comb, through public info requests, the fact that now I’ll be able to go out and just check monthly expenditures on a whim … I think is great.”

Schommer doesn’t expect the tool to eliminate controversy, but he hopes it at least gets everyone one the same page.

“We’re never all going to agree that everybody is making the right decisions and spending the right dollars on the right project, but what we can do is make sure that everybody understands the data behind the decision, and that’s our goal,” he said.

Also last month, the city of Hamilton entered into a nearly $90,000, five-year contract with OpenGov. The city’s new website will be unveiled this summer, said David Jones, assistant finance director for Hamilton.

OpenGov lists dozens of government clients on its website, including Cleveland Heights in Ohio.

Playboy, Disney trips

Mandel spent $813,979 on the state website, which includes roughly 112 million transactions totaling more than $408 billion going back seven years.

There have been more than 110,000 searches since December, a number of which were by the I-Team, which plumbed the depths of the data and then contacted state agencies for information on notable purchases.

Revelations the I-Team found range from the gargantuan: $313 million spent with the state’s largest vendor, UnitedHealth Group, which state officials said was for administering state employees’ medical insurance.

There was the debatable: $1.7 million that state employees spent traveling to out-of-state conferences last year; $61.2 million for services with the name “consultant” in the title; and more than $900,000 on catering. There are purchases at Macy’s, Brookstone, Spencer Gifts and other mall stores.

And there were some criminal purchases: $31 spent on a Playboy magazine and $4,502 spent on lingerie — both the result of stolen state purchasing cards, departments said. The charges were refunded to the state.

Mandel said travel costs were one of the biggest “pet peeves” he came across in the database.

“I can’t stand when you see politicians and bureaucrats using our tax money to go places like Hawaii and Disney World,” he said.

‘Citizen watchdogs’

Each purchase listed on the website includes a name, phone number and email address someone can contact for more information.

The I-Team contacted the Ohio Department of Transportation, for example, and asked about a $708 Disney Resort payment in 2012. ODOT officials say the trip was for a former deputy director who attended an IT conference.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources was asked about more than $500 in jewelry purchases. The agency said they were made to restock souvenir shops at state parks.

Purchases at Guitar Center by both the state auditor’s office and ODNR were explained as audio-visual equipment for public functions.

Ohio Supreme Court officials say the more than $400,000 they spent on catering were for lunches provided along with mandatory legal training given to more than 10,000 individuals, as well as for regular meetings of the 350 people who sit on volunteer court advisory committees or task forces.

Another agency said its catering was reimbursed by attendees at events.

Mandel said he wants “to create an army of citizen watchdogs” to demand transparency of every level of government and challenge questionable purchases.

“It’ll act as a deterrent (and) hopefully make these politicians and bureaucrats think twice before they do anything stupid with our tax money,” he said.

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