Getting the City of Hamilton to release expense spending of elected officials and senior management

Do citizen’s have a right to know how their elected officials are spending public funds?

Should government provide citizens with that information?

Should citizens have to pay to learn how their money is being spent?

In the case of the City of Hamilton, the answer to those questions are, in order: maybe, no, and yes.

My latest battle with the City of Hamilton will be transparency for how elected officials and senior city staff expense taxpayers for travel, meals, travel cancellations, and per diem expenses.

After requesting this information voluntarily, I’ve been forced to file a freedom of information request.

Once I receive the information, I will post as an open data set. The City will likely respond by releasing the information to the public itself and continuing to do so in the future.

This is my goal — forcing the City to be transparent.

The FOI request: what’s the Mayor expensing?

I’ve made numerous requests for information related to the Mayor’s budget. The City did provide me the balance sheet that’s included in the audit statements for Mayor Fred Eisenberger’s overall spending – they refused my requests for details of spending. I eventually received a budget account spreadsheet of spending. The City continued to refuse to provide detailed itemization.

With the first year of Mayor Bob Bratina’s term complete, I’ve requested all expense records for the Mayor and Mayor’s office for the first year of Bratina’s term.

The request is simple and limited to the Mayor’s office due to the prohibitive fees the City of Hamilton charges to discourage citizens from requesting transparency in civic government.

It is my hope that by making the Mayor’s office expenses public and transparent as an open data set, the City will begin posting the expenses of elected officials. (Joining most levels of government that already engage in this basic and simple practice of transparency.)

Want public data to be public? Prepare to pay twice… dearly for it.

The City is charging their full FOI rate for this request.

The costs could be significant — the City archives expenses immediately and does not provide electronic financial records for the spending of elected officials. It will take many man-hours to search the City’s paper archives to find the expense files at a rate of $30/hr.

Each page of expense records will be reviewed and expenses that may be exempt from disclosure (in the City’s opinion – I will appeal any attempt to not release records) will be blacked-out and not released. This will be done at $1.00 per page. Further, the City will charge 20 cents per page for photocopying the expense records.

My request for this disclosure is presently with the City’s Finance Services division and I’m awaiting the City to provide an estimated cost to receive  this public information.

Past FOI battle: election transparency

This is not the first time I’ve been forced to petition with an FOI request for public information. In 2010, the City forced me to use FOI requests to receive a map of ward polling boundaries and candidate expenses disclosures.

Repeated requests for electoral information as basic as polling districts was denied. Ironically, once I made my FOI request, the City realised polling districts was public information and they handed over the information without charge. They were also kind enough to provide an electronic copy of the data.

Following the election, I requested candidate financial disclosure records. The City denied my request and forced me to engage the FOI process.

After I spent about fifty dollars to get the disclosures of seven candidates, and stated I would be uploading them to my website for public access, the City announced it would release all candidate disclosure in electronic format on March 31, 2011.

It was similar with livestreaming of City Council meeting. It was only after myself and other volunteers repeatedly provided a livestream of City Council meetings that the City prioritized the provision of its own livestreaming service.

Preparing a fundraiser to cover the costs of releasing public information

As most of my readers know, my work to increase public transparency is on my own dime and time. I’m not employed by any newsroom in Hamilton and do this because I believe journalists should work to increase the amount of information available to the public without access restrictions or controls.

The reason I’ve not requested the expenses for all elected officials and senior city managers is to keep costs manageable.

If the City continues pattern of response to my transparency efforts, the City will post expense information following my FOI request when I post the Mayor’s expenses without restriction for the public to see how their money is being spent.

This is exactly the response I’m hoping to see from the City – ongoing transparency.

Once I’m aware of the cost, I’ll publicize the amount and we’ll figure out how we – citizens – can raise the funds necessary to pay twice for public information.