Financial Transparency: Does the Ashland City Government Have It?

An Inquiry Into Open Government and a Demonstration of OpenGov

Many taxpayers in Ashland have been complaining that the city’s finances are not transparent.  What does that mean?  Simply, it means that the details of the financial dealings of the city government are not easy to find.

It hasn’t always been this way.  Between 2017 and 2019, Finance Director Mark Welch began using a new program to address the issue: OpenGov.  OpenGov is a portal into the city’s financial records that is accessed through a website.  It is highly customizable.  The finance department can allow public access to as much or as little data as it desires.  It is a useful tool for taxpayers who want graphical and tabular displays of the data.

The system worked well for several years.  But this last budget cycle, data began to disappear from OpenGov.  Entire categories of reports were deleted or restricted.  The first to go was the “position report”.  This listed titles of all of the employees of the city, along with their salaries, benefits, and total compensation.  No names or personal information were included,  just the job title.  This happened shortly after several citizens made inquiries regarding the city payroll. Shortly thereafter the “ending fund balance” report was removed.  This report is basic to understanding the financial health of each city department.  Little by little, more and more data and reports became inaccessible.

This was all happening in early April, when the budget hearings were about to commence.  When asked about the removal of the data, finance director Melanie Purcell on April 8 stated, “We pulled the report because we found errors and data we had trouble corroborating. We will update it and replace it in the next week or so. I’ll let you know as soon as we have it up.”  She was referring to the position report.  As of this writing (September 3), the report has not been restored. It appeared that the data was being intentionally suppressed during the budget deliberations.

In any case, the proposed budget was adopted by the Council in June.  Melanie Purcell left the employ of the city of Ashland in early August, and was replaced by interim finance director Alison Chan.  And it appears that Ms. Chan is in the process of restoring data to OpenGov.  Far more information is currently available.  I hope that this pattern will continue. Many thanks to her.

This question has resurfaced because I have recently raised questions about the lack of reporting by the Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission as required by the City Charter. At the APRC 9/1/21 study session, APRC director Michael Black insisted that APRC is making the required reports, and suggested that the public simply didn’t know how to access the data.  He pointed to OpenGov, and stated that APR’s data is equally accessible as any city financial data.  He was right about that, but that is exactly the point: none of the city financial data is accessible enough to the taxpayers.  He also took umbrage to the word “transparency”. There’s no need to quibble over terminology.  We can say that the data is not “available”, or it is not “accessible”.  The end result is that taxpayers cannot be informed about how and where their tax dollars are being spent by their government.  This is a basic right of citizens, and a basic responsibility of government.  He stated that taxpayers just don’t know how to access the data.  As you will see, he is incorrect.

So let’s take a look at what’s accessible on OpenGov today 9/3/21.  I have to specify the date, because the configuration of OpenGov appears to be constantly changing at this time. The data is, of course, constantly changing. I hope more data will be available in the future, but here’s where we stand today. These instructions are for a Windows PC with a mouse. Tablets and Apple computers may be somewhat different, but similar. A smartphone is not recommended.

Follow along with me.  Screenshots below.  First we go to OpenGov [og1] Today it landed on the page label “Annual broken down by expenses”.  Click on “Monthly Data” to select it. [og2] Verify that it still says broken down by expenses.  The left column should say “broken down by expense type”. Choose a fiscal year– I am choosing 2020-21. [og3] Click on “filtered by funds”.  [og4] The list of funds appears.  Click on “all” to deselect all. [og5] Ignore the error message that pops up behind that list. Click the triangle to the left of “Capital Projects”.  Then click on the box to the right of “Parks Capital Improvement Fund” to select it. [og6] You will notice as you make selections, the graphs change, and the error goes away.  Next click on the triangle to the left of “General Fund”.  Click on the box to the right of “Parks General Fund” to select it. [og7] Next click on the triangle for “Internal Service”, and select “Parks Equipment Fund”. [og8]  Note that throughout this process, you can view the data in tabular form at the bottom of the page.

You have now selected all of the Parks funds: parks general, parks capital improvements, and parks equipment.  Click the x to the right of “Funds” to view the entire graph. [og9] Now you’re ready to explore.  On the right side of the screen, click on “Material and Services”. [og10] The new graph shows the subcategories. [og11] Click on “Contractual Services”. [og12] Click on “Professional Services” in the new graph.  [og13]

That’s it– you are done.  You cannot drill down to any greater detail.  Keep in mind that you are looking at cumulative data.  The June data is actually year to date.  What do we see? Hover your mouse over the June bar. It shows that the actual cumulative annual expenditures for Professional Services by APRC in June 2021 is $277,967.  If you click on the bar hoping for more detail you are out of luck.  You are at the highest level of detail available on OpenGov at this time.  You have no way of knowing what that quarter of a million dollars for professional services was spent on, who received it, where it went. 

These are all legitimate and valid questions for any taxpayer to ask.  And taxpayers should be able to get answers.  Do you still have questions?  You can email or write the finance department requesting the information, I suppose.  I don’t know if you’d get it.  I do know that the finance department shouldn’t have to be bothered answering questions like that.  The reason the city subscribes to OpenGov (and you can bet that the subscription price is substantial) is to help inform the taxpayers and make the job of the finance department easier.

The point is, OpenGov as it’s now configured does not provide the transparency, the accessibility, nor the availability that taxpayers need and deserve to have into the finances of the city. If OpenGov has the ability to show greater detail, it should be configured to do so. If it cannot be configured to do that, then the monthly reports that APR (and every other city department) submits to the finance department should be posted on the city website.

All of this data is in electronic format to begin with when it is transmitted to finance.  All they have to do is post it.  But this data is not posted.  And that is why I say unequivocally that the finances of the city of Ashland lack transparency.

Dean Silver

//inserted by Sharon