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Los Angeles Times

L.A. controller unveils website to make city finances more transparent

The website gives the public access to a huge volume of data on taxpayer expenditures for police, sanitation, street repairs and other services.
Michael Finnegan and Ben Welsh

Los Angeles' new controller moved Wednesday to open city finances to quick and easy public scrutiny online, unveiling a website with extensive detail on how City Hall collects and spends billions of dollars.

The website, Control Panel L.A., gives users access to a huge volume of data on taxpayer expenditures for police, sanitation, street repairs and other services — information that previously would have taken weeks or months to get through formal requests for records.

With user-friendly icons and drop-down menus, the site enables visitors to download, sort and analyze data on city employee salaries and more than 100,000 payments to contractors. The project's launch is an initial step in the city's struggle to catch up with New YorkChicagoSan Franciscoand other cities that have embraced the movement to make government more transparent.

"Knowledge is power, and this initiative is providing both to the people of Los Angeles," said Controller Ron Galperin, the project's architect.

The system has significant gaps, including a lack of names attached to salaries. It shows a clerk typist with an annual salary of less than $53,000 receiving more than $300,000 in pay last year; the website gives no name or explanation.

The site also gives no details on more than $100 million in liability claims paid by the city as it struggled to recover from a fiscal crisis that yielded deep service cuts. Also absent from the site are spending breakdowns on construction projects of independent agencies that run the city's water and power systems, the Port of Los Angeles, and airports.

At a news conference, Galperin said he would fix those shortcomings and others. The project was hurried along and made public to minimize resistance from city officials, he said.

"We have an historic opportunity to make our government faster, more efficient, transparent to the public, in truly unprecedented ways," Galperin said.

Initial reaction was positive. "This is great, and the way things ought to work," said Clay Johnson, a leading advocate for data transparency in government. "Raw data is available, it's accessible to the public, and open and ready in many different formats for programmers and ordinary people alike."

The website's unveiling drew considerable media coverage for Galperin, a newcomer to city politics who took office in July. It also eclipsed, at least temporarily, Mayor Eric Garcetti's high-profile effort to bring more transparency to City Hall.

Two weeks ago, Garcetti unveiled an early "beta" version of his own open-government websitefeaturing a relatively limited set of charts and graphs measuring city performance. A significant expansion is coming, he promised.

Garcetti, who attended Galperin's news conference, said the availability of more detailed spending data would give Los Angeles residents more influence over the city budget.

"This year will be a new step not just in Los Angeles city government, but we hope it will be the example for the country in what open, transparent government looks like and what data can do to improve people's lives," he said.

The consumer organization California Public Interest Research Group Education Fund released a report in January that ranked the nation's 30 largest cities on transparency in city spending. With a score of C-, Los Angeles finished 17th.

"With the launch of Control Panel L.A., Los Angeles' city spending will be much more transparent," said Garo Manjikian, the group's legislative advocate in Sacramento.

Galperin urged computer programmers to use the website's raw data to develop smartphone apps that would be useful to city residents.

Nationwide, nonprofits and foundations are pushing to expand a network of programmers who put civic data to good use.

Ari Hoffnung, who heads New York City's open-data budget website, said he believes that publishing raw spending data online will lead to less government waste.

"It's human psychology," he said. "We know that when people know they are being watched, their decisions will become better over time."

Full statement by CALPIRG's Garo Manjikian:

In January of 2013 the CALPIRG Education Fund released our report "Transparency in City Spending: Rating the Availability of Online Government Data in America's Largest Cities" which graded the top 50 cities in the U.S. on their transparency in city spending. The City of Los Angeles scored a C-, falling short of many other major cities.

With the launch of Control Panel LA, Los Angeles’ city spending will be much more transparent. In particular, we applaud the city for not only providing visual aids for the average resident who just wants a snapshot, but also downloadable and searchable details for the reporter or advocate who wants to dig into the details. In particular, the CheckbookLA application which can be accessed from the main site, provides a stream line process for Angelenos to search expenditure data to external vendors easily by department, vendor, or expenditure type.

City spending has a profound impact on residents’ lives through basic government functions such as policing, sanitation and public health.  Spending transparency can help residents of Los Angeles hold their elected leaders accountable and ensure that tax dollars are well spent.



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