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Bell, California: Moving From Secrecy to Sunshine

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Bell-seal

We can't keep our eyes off the City of Bell, California -- and for good reasons.

The city gained notoriety in 2010 when the Los Angeles Times began to expose high salaries for city officials who did next to nothing. It was a problem that had been brewing for years, as the LA Times charted in a timeline of the corruption.

Bell's government is different now.

Bell has most recently been in the news not just for reaching a culminating point in the scandal -- the trial of six former city council members on corruption charges -- but also for a high transparency grade as part of a government website review. Sunshine Review, a non-profit that examines state and local government transparency, gave the city an A- grade in the 2013 Sunny Awards. The grades are based on whether certain information like budgets, open meeting laws, and lobbying records are posted online, as outlined in this checklist.

This is one indicator of the many steps the city government has taken toward greater transparency. Bell's efforts are notable for several reasons.

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Greetings from #OpenData Land

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Publishing open data has many practical and normative implications which can be noted and explored in the text of the open data policy. We've rounded up some of the interesting reasons policymakers in cities across the country have pursued these policies. Check them out in our #opendata policy postcards.

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New Rule Takes On Pay-to-Play in Muni Bonds

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Sunlight has long been an advocate for not only improved transparency of government institutions but also for thoughtful transparency measures that have open data standards in mind. Today we submitted a letter to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) supporting a proposed rule change that would give voters more information about who is trying to influence bond ballot issues. The Board is working toward improved disclosure of ballot campaign contributions by those with certain connections to municipal bonds. We applaud this step toward greater transparency on an issue that deeply impacts local governments and their constituents. Voters have a clear interest in understanding the context of the bonds approved for their communities. Investigative journalists have already used these kinds of disclosures to write stories like this one from Voice of San Diego, which exposed the trend of those who contributed to school bond campaigns receiving the contracts they spent money influencing. The improved disclosures MSRB is mandating will be available through the Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) system, which is the free public platform for searching municipal bond information maintained by MSRB. Our comments also suggest the Board consider two more steps it could take toward 21st century disclosure.

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Cities seeking a Piece of the Action?

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From the A Piece of the Action? database, here's a list of cities that have hired lobbyists who have reported that the bailout or the stimulus is a specific lobbying issue, complete with links (if any) to project requests on the excellent StimulusWatch.org page for those cities:

Tacoma, WA

Birmingham, MI

Tracy, CA

Hartford, CT

Everett, WA

Jasper, AL

Thomasville, AL

Center Point, AL

Jackson, AL

Atmore, AL

Henderson, NV

Huntsville, AL

Sumter, SC

Arlington, TX

Austin, TX

Dallas, TX

Denton, TX

Phoenix, AZ

Bellevue, WA

Portland, OR

Las Vegas, NV

Whittier, CA

Boise, ID

Auburn, AL

Brewton ...

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