An open-records advocacy group has launched an online government spending database, continuing its effort to boost local government transparency.
Manhattan-based Reclaim New York’s “Find a Checkbook” lets anyone search spending on contracts and payroll from 2014 for more than 200 Long Island counties, cities, towns, villages and school districts.
Combined with its Freedom of Information Law trainings and records-access lawsuits, Reclaim New York hopes the database will create an “army” of advocates across the state, Executive Director Brandon Muir said.
“We want to remind all elected officials and all public officials that transparency is not a hope, it is not an idea. Transparency is the law,” Muir said at a news conference in Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos’ Mineola office.
So far 218 of the 253 Long Island municipalities from which Reclaim New York requested the spending records have provided them, Muir said. The group had to sue under the state’s Freedom of Information Law to get records from some, including the Manhasset school district.
Reclaim New York modeled its database on Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel’s “Online Checkbook” containing spending records for state agencies, universities and colleges.
“The point is changing behavior among politicians, making them think twice before they waste taxpayer money, or even worse, defraud the citizens,” said Mandel, a Republican.
Reclaim New York also released a set of records-access guidelines encouraging municipalities to post spending data, meeting agendas and minutes, budgets and other information online. It will develop a scorecard to rank governments’ transparency.
The group praised Maragos, who started posting all county contracts online in 2014.
The practice has improved access to records and saved workers time that would have been spent processing Freedom of Information Law requests, said Maragos, a former Republican who is running for county executive as a Democrat.
Muir said the Town of North Hempstead is “well on their way” to meeting Reclaim New York’s transparency standards. The town publishes contracts, bids, meeting information and budget data on its website.
Reclaim New York plans to continue training civic associations and community groups on how to use the Freedom of Information Law to hold governments accountable, Muir said. About 150 people have been trained the past three months, he said.
Reclaim New York says it is non-partisan, but its 2014 tax filing lists its chief officer as Stephen K. Bannon, the campaign CEO for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and the executive chairman of Breitbart, a conservative news site.
Reclaim New York’s chair, director and treasurer is Rebekah Mercer, a hedge fund manager who has given $34.6 million to more than 30 conservative political groups, including Bannon’s Government Accountability Institute, according to a Sept. 7 Politico report.
But Mandel said transparency is a cause that draws allies of all political stripes.
“George, I have no idea what political party you are, and it doesn’t really matter,” Mandel told Maragos, who announced his party switch last month.