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Austin fails to establish searchable campaign finance database [Austin American-Statesman :: ]
[August 01, 2014]

Austin fails to establish searchable campaign finance database [Austin American-Statesman :: ]

(Austin American-Statesman (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 02-- Last month, the 66 people running for city races in Austin had to file reports disclosing how much money they had raised and spent. To let the public see them, the city clerk's office scanned those forms and posted them online.

Sounds great, except the city is likely violating its own law by just posting those forms online, instead of putting them into a searchable online database of campaign finance reports.

A letter sent to City Manager Marc Ott this week from Austin attorney Fred Lewis points out that the city's own code required it to establish a searchable campaign finance database by August 2013.

"If the campaign finance reports are in a downloadable, searchable database, the public can see in 30 seconds how much a particular person is getting, how much money is coming from certain industries and special interests," Lewis said. The current system of scanned documents makes it too time-consuming to crunch the data meaningfully, he said.

City Council Member Laura Morrison proposed the resolution in April 2012 that required the searchable database by August of last year. She said the plan was to complete it in time for this year's election season.

The city has tried to complete the database, but hit several speed bumps along the way, she said. First, the city got a jaw-dropping initial cost estimate of $800,000 for completing the project.

A group called Open Austin then got involved and offered to help the city -- for free -- develop the database.

Open Austin Chairman Chip Rosenthal said his group developed a working prototype.

"We actually do have an application that is public on our website," he said. But Rosenthal said the group stopped short of working on a final product with the city because Open Austin concluded it wasn't appropriate for an all-volunteer group to support "an essential city function." And Rosenthal said the group learned it would make more sense to try to get the state to open up its campaign filing software system for use in local races.

The state's system allows candidates to track their fundraising and spending on a spreadsheet and file electronically with the state. "We may be able to use the capability in that software to do a single button e-filing," he said.

By the time Open Austin turned the project back over to the city, it was spring of 2014. Morrison said it became too late to develop something in time for the November election.

A statement from the city simply says it "encountered delays implementing the database due to technical and funding limitations," and that staffers were working on a plan to test a pilot program next year.

Morrison said she's sympathetic to Lewis' frustrations, and that the city sometimes struggles with implementing technology-driven products, such as the "311" smartphone app that was just unveiled this week.

"Other cities have had that in place for years," she said.

Lewis said he's skeptical of the city's reasons for not building it.

"In 27 months, the United States built an atomic bomb from scratch," Lewis said. "The city could have gotten a fairly easy searchable database if it had wanted." ------ Eye on elections The American-Statesman provides the most comprehensive coverage of how money is flowing into the 11 races that will remake the Austin City Council this fall, including stories last month showing which interests are pouring money into the mayoral campaigns and which district candidates are gaining steam. For our searchable database of the candidates' latest fundraising totals, and click on "Austin City Council candidate search." Follow us on Facebook at

___ (c)2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas Visit Austin American-Statesman, Texas at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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