Opening up information about the assets of those in decision-making positions can help show where conflicts of interest might arise. The disclosure of this kind of information on the local level, however, is spotty at best. For those that are able to access asset disclosures from their local government officials, it can help reveal narratives about how financial relationships might be influencing government decision-making.
Asset disclosures have empowered stories like the one in Honolulu, where the news organization Civil Beat looked into what information is not disclosed by local officials due to confusion from the wording of the forms. This came after it was revealed that the city council chairman had failed to disclose payment for a part-time position that created a potential conflict of interest in making a decision about a rail project.
Civil Beat also conducted an extensive review of the accessibility of disclosures from various levels of state and local government in Hawaii, finding room for improvement. It found only 160 of 1,800 filings were voluntarily placed online through a state portal. Civil Beat continues to request the paper forms for local officials, report on and share the contents and note that the forms are not available electronically.
Reporters are the ones calling out the need for access to and scrutiny of asset disclosures in many communities. In Richmond, the Times-Dispatch pointed out that although Virginia’s laws require local government officials from cities with a population of 3,500 or more to file asset disclosures, scrutiny of the documents “is largely left up to the public, the media and the officials themselves.” Other local news outlets in Virginia have called attention to the issue of oversight, too.
In Philadelphia, information from asset disclosures is supposed to be shared online as part of the open data initiative there, but it isn’t yet. Earlier this year, a reporter at the nonprofit news organization AxisPhilly called out the practice of requiring people to come to a government building to view the forms and noted that the release date for the data had been pushed back. It is currently slated for release by Dec. 31 after being pushed back again.
Reporters in Philadelphia aren’t alone though: reporters in Baltimore have to travel to government buildings to view disclosure forms, too. Digging into the disclosures and talking to officials also revealed a disparity in what officials believe they have to disclose. Some disclosed tickets that were given as gifts, while others did not (even though some say those who did not disclose received tickets, too). Disagreements over what needs to be disclosed (or when, or in how much detail) aren’t uncommon: cases like this can also be found in Hennepin County, Minn., and Pinole, Calif., among many other examples.
Some local reforms are in motion to require more disclosure of this critical dataset. The Fair Political Practices Commission in California is working toward building a database for sharing financial disclosure reports. Local officials across the state are already required to file these forms, and sharing them through a database could allow for deeper analysis and reuse of the information if it is shared as open data — something that is made possible by the new requirement for electronic filing of the information as part of the reform package.
Other places are working to simply require more frequent disclosure of this kind of information. Kansas City, for instance, considered rule changes this year that would require quarterly disclosure of gifts to city council members instead of just annual reports. In Tallahassee, the ethics advisory panel proposed requiring more information from local officials than what state forms require. Reforms have also been proposed in cities including Minneapolis, where city commissioners often have to recuse themselves from being part of decisions due to a conflict of interest only to then present to their fellow commissioners about the topic.
More Data, Deeper Narratives
There are many more examples from across the country of reporting providing context to asset disclosures or proposed reforms shining a spotlight on the importance of asset disclosures at the local level. We’ve gathered some of these in our research. In an upcoming post, we’ll share recommendations for best practices around the release of asset disclosures that would further empower analysis and public oversight of potential conflicts of interest.