While sunshine in government operations should be a 365-day calling, the dedication of this week gives focus to the necessity of transparency in a healthy democracy, the success of which is dependent upon actively engaged citizens.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Truth never damages a cause that is just.” That statement that should apply to all governments.
And that’s why we find it so troubling that our state legislature continues to shield itself from open meeting law, public records law and audits by the duly elected state auditor. Legislators spend our money and make laws that impact on daily lives. Yet we, whom they represent, remain in the dark
Once again during Sunshine Week, we took a look back at Pioneer’s transparency work since the last Sunshine Week. Here are some highlights:
|RECENT SUNSHINE Grading the Local Retirement Boards – Ouch, that smarts!In the summer of 2013, Pioneer launched a website designed to shine a light on the 105 public pension systems in Massachusetts. MassPensions.com assembles publicly available information about the fiscal and demographic status of public retirement systems, empowering users to generate comprehensive reports. Based on objective criteria, we graded each system. Want to know what towns got an A? a D? Visit MassPensions.com.
|Why can’t MBTA Retirement Fund just be like the rest of ’em? Pioneer wants accountability at the MBTA Retirement Fund, which is not subject to state transparency, ethics and pension standards. The attorney general opened an investigation into a $25 million loss invested in a hedge fund recommended by the MBTA Retirement Fund’s former executive director. Yep, the folks he presided over thought it A-okay to do business with him shortly after he left. Pioneer has worked to bring more information about the secretive pension fund to the public and proved incontrovertibly that taxpayers (through the MBTA) are on the hook for 75% of contributions to the fund.
|Turn on the lights!It must make too much sense for the state to actually improve transparency by mandating that each agency have a de facto transparency officer responsible for ensuring compliance with public records laws. Now that would really turn on the lights! Read our op-ed in the Boston Herald on the subject.
|That Legislature of Ours – Fort Knox When it Comes to its OWN ExpendituresBoy, can you believe we can’t even get an invoice out of the state legislature? Why would they spend $525 on a tailor? Read our op-ed in the Boston Herald to learn more about the spending we questioned.
|The Dog Ate DCF’s Report CardWith all the horrific management lapses at the Department of Children and Families, we wanted to see how well the agency stacked up in the new MassResults program, touted by the Governor to advance accountability and performance. This isn’t a case of grade inflation, it’s a case of results evasion. Shocking? You tell me.
|ROAD BLOCKED In doing transparency work at Pioneer, we often encounter obstacles in getting lawfully public records. Here are some of the recent road blocks:
|MassPort: Transparency Troglodyte Pioneer requested a copy of MassPort’s current operating budget since it’s not posted on MassPort’s website. We called for help locating it online, but MassPort turned on the legalese and said that we needed to submit a freedom-of-information request to its legal department. Seriously? In this era of transparency and online access? The MWRA, MassDevelopment, MassHousing and even the MBTA all post annual operating budgets online to foster transparency. And MassPort doesn’t post its payroll online either. Sunshine Week is a good time for MassPort to climb out of its cave and post its $592 million operating budget and payroll online. Hey Massport, did you forget it’s 2014?
|Deep in the Heart of Texas! You’d think it should be easy to get access to the National Fire Incident Reporting Database (NFIRS), maintained by the U.S. Fire Administration. Pioneer wanted to compare Massachusetts fire department response statistics to those of other states. By an act of Congress, NFIRS assembles data on millions of fire incidents and response data from fire departments across the country – all on the taxpayers’ dime. The website provides an array of easy-to-use online data analytic tools to access and analyze data. But to use these online tools, there’s a catch. You’d have to get individual authorizations from 50 state fire marshalls. Thankfully, the Massachusetts State Department of Fire Services agreed to provide the Massachusetts data in response to a public document request (but not access to the tools). Pioneer found one state that deserves transparency accolades: Texas. It’s the only state to offer guest passwords allowing access to NFIRS data tools without going through hoops. Yep, that must be why it’s the Lone Star State.
|OUR TOP QUICK FIX: Open Checkbook should open the state’s other checkbook! The state’s Open Checkbook online data tool offers payroll information about Massachusetts state departments, offices, universities, and independent agencies, but not about the state’s so-called “second government” agencies, including the MBTA, MassPort, Mass Convention Center Authority, MassDevelopment, Pension Reserve Investment Management Board, UMass Commonwealth Medicine, and a host of other quasi-independents. Pioneer’s MassOpenBooks online data tool -constructed at a tiny fraction of the cost of the state version- offers a very user-friendly way to view and analyze payroll and pension information about more employees than the state site does: 123,244 employees versus 107,369. The Boston Herald‘s Your Tax Dollars at Work online data tool has doggedly extracted and published payroll data from these quasi-independent agencies for years, as well as from the state’s biggest cities and other entities. It shouldn’t take freedom-of-information requests to make public payrolls transparent. It’s time for Open Checkbook to open its other check book.
|COMING SOON Coming up in 2014, we will put into the hands of Massachusetts residents and policymakers another powerful tool to gauge and improve the performance of their local government. MassAnalysis.com will integrate data from the Municipal Databank, FBI, DESE, US Census and other state and federal agencies to provide the most comprehensive look yet into communities across the commonwealth. To get updates about this project, please subscribe to our Twitter feed or at PioneerInstitute.org.
|CHECK PIONEER’S TRANSPARENCY TOOLBOX Find out trends in salaries through MassOpenBooks.org. For example, in Step it Up, UMASS, we found that there is still a significant gap in salaries paid to coaches of men’s teams and women’s teams. It’s also good practice to visit MassReportCards before you make that offer on a house.Check out our transparency tool designed to help citizens see how their city or town stacks up next to its peers and state averages using a downloadable Excel utility that holds data for all municipalities in the states – it’s here at your fingertips. See how your town rates on spending, crime, fires, taxes, employment, education and many other measures. But this tool will be supersized in the near future with MassAnalysis.com.Be sure to visit us with great frequency! As Justice Brandeis once said, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”