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One year ago, Chester County Council discussed the possibility of putting all expenditures online for the public to easily peruse. Unfortunately, the idea doesn't seem to have gone much further than just those discussions.
The idea was introduced by Councilman Alex Oliphant, who said he'd had some initial talks with County Treasurer Tommy Darby about what would be required to make all the county's business and transactions public. There would be an initial investment of money and time, he said, but not much of either. There didn't seem to be a lot of support for the move elsewhere on the dais, with other council members saying the public elects a council and supervisor to set policy and manage money and that making things available online wasn't the answer to every problem.
We have long advocated that local governing bodies embrace complete openness and this seems like a good place to start. South Carolina Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom has moved to put state finances online and has encouraged counties, municipalities and school districts to do the same. Essentially, the first and most important duty of public officials is to be good stewards of taxpayer money. The public can look at the annual budget or monthly financial reports, but those are general and and lack any degree of specificity. People need the reassurance that the hard-earned dollars they turn over to the government are spent responsibly. Since it is their money and is being spent, ostensibly, on their behalf, they also deserve to know specifically how each dollar is being parsed out. Currently, their only real path to do so is to file a Freedom of Information Act request. However, they have to know specifically what they want to see, the governmental body can wait 15 working days to respond, then charge them for the man hours that went into culling the information and charge them again for the physical copies. Put another way, you currently have to give the government some of your money to have them explain to you in detail how they are spending the money you've already given them. We think that process is a bit onerous and unnecessary, when all expenditures could just be placed on the county website for anyone to access with a quick click.
Making information more accessible achieves a couple of things beyond ease of access for the public at-large. Being completely open demonstrates that there is nothing to hide. We aren't even insinuating that public money is misspent, but we are saying there is often a chasm of mistrust between the governing and the governed, one that could be bridged a bit by this idea. It will also help tamp down rumors. We hear, occasionally, about this person getting a favor, or this person's cousin being given a job or contract. The ability to see every check the county cuts can knock out those kinds of whispers in short order. Maybe it would even give folks an appreciation for what a complex undertaking running and managing a county really is. We don't see a negative, especially since there aren't serious time or financial impediments to make this happen.
It having been a year since the topic was discussed, we checked on the status of things recently and were told the council didn't seem inclined to support the move. We hope they'll see all the benefits, the lack of a downside and change their minds. Where giving the public easy access to financial records is concerned, it's time for brief discussions to turn into action.