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City Finances Were A Story Before Detroit’s Bankruptcy

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The news is indeed big and deserving of attention: As of last week, Detroit is now the largest U.S. municipality to file for bankruptcy.

The news, however, is perhaps not as shocking as some would portray it. While national publications have only recently jumped on the story, Detroit's local media have long been keeping the public informed about the city's finances and the series of events that eventually led to filing for bankruptcy.

Accessing public records -- including details about the city's financial data, contracts, and many other datasets -- has enabled the media to shine a light over the years on the city's fiscal challenges. Outlets like Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, Fox 2 News, and many others were on this story long before the news of bankruptcy woke up the media giants: capturing critical moments like when the city realized it was close to running out of cash in 2011 and press conferences by Detroit leaders in 2012 that described how allowing state intervention could help prevent bankruptcy. Continued coverage from the local media kept residents informed about what was happening, what events and politics had led Detroit to this situation, and what could come next. The potential of bankruptcy was no surprise to those who followed the process of state intervention in the city's finances.

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With a population of more than 700,000 people, Detroit is now the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy, but it is by no means the first large city to do so. Cities like Stockton (population: 296,000), Vallejo (population: 117,000), and San Bernardino (population: 213,000) have been there, too, and the stories out of those cities can help show what to watch for in Detroit. (And, if San Bernardino is any example, other cities can show some of the particular challenges to financial information disclosure that may appear during bankruptcy proceedings.)

No two places provide an exact apples to apples comparison, however. Each city has its own history, process, and paper trail -- and each needs an experienced scout to know how to traverse the political landscape and to help the public do the same. That's why it's so important to have access to public records (the key to understanding our political past and present) and to have watchdogs who use them to review the political process and show those in power that they will be held accountable for their actions.

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FCC requires online posting of political ad files

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Handing open-government advocates a partial victory in a better than decade-long battle, the Federal Communications Commission voted Friday to require major network affiliates in the top 50 TV markets to post information about their political ads online.

The move could provide the public with crucial information on who's behind the ads purchased by nonprofit groups that, under new campaign finance laws, can spend unlimited amounts of money advocating for or against candidates without registering with the Federal Election Commission. But the rule will leave out many TV markets in presidential battleground states as our map shows.

Broadcasters had fiercely ...

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Whither stimulus contracts?

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The Washington Post's Kimberly Kindy reports that the Dept. of Energy is awarding stimulus funds to companies specializing in nuclear clean-ups that have a mixed track record:

A private company was being paid $300 million by the federal government to clean up radioactive waste at two abandoned Cold War plants in Tennessee when an ironworker crashed through a rotted floor. That prompted a major safety review, which ended up forcing work to an abrupt halt, and the project was shut down for months. The delay and a host of other problems caused cost estimates to rise, eventually hitting $781 ...

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