Citizens Lobby for More Open Government
- By Tracy Mayor
- Jan 09, 2000
When stories of corruption and back-room deals came to light a few years ago in Miami-Dade County, Fla., civic organizations took action. The state attorney's office added government prosecutors. The Chamber of Commerce started an ethics group. The county hired a former FBI administrator to serve as an independent commissioner.
And a group of residents chose the Internet as its corruption-busting weapon of choice.
The Citizens' Action Network is fighting to get the county government to post documents online that were technically public but essentially inaccessible to all but the most diligent searchers.
Their hope is if data such as campaign finances, lobbyist registration statements and gift-disclosure forms from county commissioners were available online, it might deter cronyism, contracting irregularities and corporate influence in elections.
"We started with the belief that an informed electorate is a more empowered electorate," said Santiago Leon, leader of the network, an informal group of concerned citizens with an active membership of about 20 people and a mailing list of 150. "The Internet is a quick, inexpensive way to widely disclose this information."
For credibility, Leon and his supporters assembled a detailed document specifying exactly what should be posted publicly and listing examples of other local and county governments that already do so.
To augment voter education and combat election fraud, for example, the network proposed that candidates for major offices file required finance reports in electronic form and that the elections department post the reports on its World Wide Web site the day the reports are submitted. That would enable citizens to determine before the election who and what groups supported a particular candidate and to what degree.
Now, Leon said, final campaign-finance data is filed the Friday before an election and isn't widely or easily available until after the election. David Leahy,
Miami-Dade County supervisor of elections, said under the current system, people seeking the documents before election day are primarily journalists, and it's rare for a single voter to ask for such records at that time.
In response to complaints of contracting irregularities and favoritism by the County Commission, the network is asking that a detailed, rather than summarized, agenda be posted online before every commission meeting. Included in the post must be the full text of any commission action taken, a record of each commissioner's vote, lobbyist registrations, commissioners' gift and personal-finance disclosure forms and sworn statements of employment for firms that do business with the county.
Such information, particularly when combined with other relevant data, could help people determine if a campaign contributor has won a large contract over better bidders, if a political fund-raiser has registered as a lobbyist on a issue sensitive to his candidate or if multiple change orders have elevated a once unprofitable job bid into a new, economically advantageous price range, Leon said.
"You could look up the principals of a company that's just won a bid and cross-index that with the campaign-finance database to see if that person is a major donor," he said.
Ethics observers in the county generally are in favor of the idea.
"There would be some economic costs, but the benefits outweigh those costs," said Robert Meyers, executive director of the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, a government agency formed in 1997 to oversee ethics at the county level.
Open Internet access to county business not only would create a more informed citizenry, it would help his office, Meyers said.
"We find the information we need now, but online databases would make my office more effective," he said.
The Miami-Dade League of Women Voters this summer decided to incorporate the network's proposals as part of its Ethics and Accountability Subcommittee platform. Leon has moved network operations to the league, a group with which he has long been involved.
"This is definitely a meat-and-potatoes issue for the league," Leon said. "They're concerned with voter turnout and campaign finance and accountability, and Internet disclosure touches all of those themes."
The league backing also gives the network more legitimacy in Miami politics and a boost in visibility, Leon said.
Just how realistic are the network's goals? Leon is in the process of meeting with managers and executives in two key county departments — the elections department and the County Clerk's office, which handles all material relevant to the county commissioners — to determine how much information already exists electronically.
The answers are both encouraging and frustrating.
For example, all but the grassroots write-in candidates already log and track campaign-finance information using some type of standard office software, Leahy said. But the elections department requires candidates to file reports in hard copy.
"Any serious candidate is doing it electronically so it would not be a burden, but I don't have the authority to require it," Leahy said.
If the County Commission were to require electronic filing, Leahy said, there could be benefits not only to citizens but to workers in his office who spend a lot of time photocopying reports for people.
A citizen-initiated push for a more open government is likely to have few enemies, but Leon is battling one daunting foe — bureaucratic inertia. Hands-on managers have been receptive to the idea but as he works his way up the ladder, Leon finds it more difficult to keep the attention of higher-level managers who have their own pet projects.
To build solid support before bringing the issue before the County Commission, Leon and other network volunteers have tapped certain groups to gauge their interest in the plan and hear their concerns. Leon had planned to meet with the county's new chief information officer to present the proposal. And Leon plans to take his message on the road, explaining it to the AFL-CIO, a voluntary federation of 68 national and international labor unions, and other labor and business groups in the county.
The network then hopes to win over a couple of commissioners who might sponsor the plan.
That may seem like a lot of legwork, but Leon said he is optimistic that his group can win the support of the County Commission.
"It's all administrative decisions," Leon says. "As we say down here, all we need is a little cojones to make it happen."