Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Tuesday announced that she had put the city’s checkbook on the internet for all to see — an historic move that coincides with a painful time at City Hall.
At a press conference Tuesday, Bottoms and her senior staff demonstrated how they had made it possible to track individual expenditures by department, vendor, date and fund for the first time.
The new administration’s “Open Checkbook” was formed under the pressure of a federal corruption investigation at City Hall; a state inquiry into possible criminal violations of the Georgia Open Records Act; and questions about Bottoms’ own spending.
“We received so many questions about our spending,” Bottoms said. “Rather than waiting for the public to ask, rather than waiting for the media to ask, we are now making it available to you.”
The data is limited to 18 months — January 1, 2017 to June 30 of this year. Payroll expenses weren’t included.
And some expenditures appeared to be missing when cross-referenced with data sets previously obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this year.
The public couldn’t view Bottoms’ $7,088.50 bi-weekly pay check, or see that the city paid $5,000 to a nonprofit called Project Seraphim on Nov. 29, 2017.
However, within an hour of the announcement at least one curious expense began circulating on Twitter: $2,500 for rush dry-cleaning of an Atlanta Falcons flag in February 2017 — paid for out of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport funds.
“The past several months have been a very difficult time in the life of the City of Atlanta,” Bottoms said. “The past eight months have really tested the patience of not just our employees, but also our residents. I sincerely hope that with ‘Open Checkbook,’ the public will be reminded of our administration’s commitment to transparency.”
‘This is a start’
At her press conference, Bottoms did acknowledge that residents might experience some some kinks with the site.
“I just want to remind people that this is a new portal for us,” she said. “I don’t want to set expectations of perfection.”
She said the portal would be updated quarterly and that the city would add financial data from prior years. “This is a start,” Bottoms said.
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Sara Henderson, executive director for the government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said she met with Bottoms’ staff a few months ago to review a demonstration of the portal. She called it a “definite move toward a more transparent Atlanta city government.”
But she said the portal does not address systemic problems at City Hall. For example, Henderson said she was still waiting for information she requested under the Georgia Open Records Act in January. She also said an independent office should handle those requests, not political appointees in the mayor’s press office.
“I just think this is an example of sort of sidestepping the real problem that the City of Atlanta is facing with regards to ethics and transparency,” Henderson said.
Bottoms’ announcement occurred during an uptick of activity in a federal corruption investigation at City Hall. Last month, Bottoms’ former Deputy Chief of Staff Katrina Taylor Parks — a holdover from the previous administration of Kasim Reed — pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting a bribe.
Bottoms said that although the federal investigation had added urgency to the effort to establish the portal, it was not the driving force behind it.
During her campaign for mayor last year, Bottoms said she heard from many people interested in a more transparent government.
“This is something that was talked about very early on in the administration,” she said.
‘Not to look back’
Reed used his influence and fund-raising ability to help put Bottoms in the mayor’s office. However, during his eight years in office, the former mayor earned notoriety for holding onto information with an iron grip.
Atlanta was one of five cities that earned an F grade in a 2013 report from the U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) Education Fund that rates 30 of America’s largest cities for making government data available online.
In June, Investigative Reporters & Editors, a national nonprofit that promotes investigative reporting, selected Atlanta for the ‘Golden Padlock Award” for actions that occurred under Reed’s administration that included “directing city staff to block records requests and for releasing false invoices that triggered a criminal investigation into alleged violations of Georgia’s Open Records Act.”
Reed also withheld from the public a federal grand jury subpoena showing that the federal investigation involved the mayor’s office and not just the Department of Procurement.
Some have argued that if the document had been turned over in response to an open records request and made public, Bottoms may not have been elected.
During her first few months in office, Bottoms sought to set new tone. She turned over the subpoena her predecessor withheld. Her administration worked to fulfill a backlog of open records requests.
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The new mayor has sometimes stumbled, though. Her administration initially declined to turn over text messages between Bottoms and Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen about talks to provide tax incentives to redevelop an area of downtown, only providing them after APS did.
And Bottoms declined to turn over a copy of her calendar citing security concerns and arguing that the information was exempt under the Open Records Act.
Over the past eight months, Bottoms has refused to comment on the culture created under Reed. That continued on Tuesday.
“I am very careful,” she said, “not to look back.”
March 8: Channel 2 Action News and the AJC report on text messages from former Press Secretary Jenna Garland showing that Garland had attempted to frustrate access to open records
March 9: The AJC and Channel 2 reported that the city hid legal billing records for the federal corruption investigation in the account of a different case and directed the creation of new documents resembling invoices to satisfy an AJC’s records request. Experts say the actions ranged from unethical to potentially criminal.
March 12: Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr’s office asks the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to launch a criminal probe of text messages between former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s communication staff coordinating a delayed release of public information requested under the Georgia Open Records Act.
March 16: The AJC reports that GBI criminal probe has expanded into Atlanta City Hall’s handling of open records purported legal invoices supplied to the AJC in late 2017.
April 10: Bottoms announces plan to create an online portal through which citizens can track city spending.