In the news

CALPIRG Education Fund and US PIRG Education Fund
The Sacramento Bee
Editorial Board

It's never good to get an F, and it's definitely alarming when the failing grade has to do with tax money and transparency.

In a report out this month, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group ranked Sacramento next to last among 30 large cities in providing online databases of its spending with "checkbook level" detail. The study also looked at how easily residents can track their service requests online.

On a scale of 1 to 100, Sacramento got a 44, better than only Cleveland. It was one of five cities that received an F because they have made minimal progress in giving access to information beyond basic budgets and financial reports.

On the other end, San Francisco ranked third best with an A-minus. Los Angeles and San Diego were in the middle of the pack, each with a C-minus. (Read the full report at transparency-city-spending).

Sacramento City Hall says that it just finished upgrades so that more financial records are available online and that a major revamping of the city's website is starting this year. But it says that such improvements take money and staff time.

The need for greater transparency was demonstrated in the city credit card scandal. Former mayoral aide Lisa Serna-Mayorga faces criminal charges, accused of using her city-issued card for personal items totaling more than $19,000.

To get detailed records on city credit card use by the offices of the mayor and City Council, The Bee had to file a public records request. The city auditor did his own review of credit card spending by other city employees. In all, between 2008 and July 2012, about $10 million was charged on city cards. Following the revelations, the city has tightened its policies and limited who can have city-issued credit cards.

Looking ahead, there's another big test of transparency. Taxpayers should get as much information as possible on how proceeds are spent from the half-cent sales tax increase, which was approved in November and takes effect April 1. City officials promised voters that the money – a projected $27 million a year – will be used only to restore basic services like public safety and parks. While there is going to be a citizen oversight committee looking over the shoulder of departments, it certainly wouldn't hurt if more eyes were on the spending.

The local watchdog group Eye on Sacramento pounced on the new transparency survey to lobby again for several reforms it called for last June. One was putting the city's "checkbook" online so taxpayers can see how every dollar is being spent. The proposals also included posting all credit card charges and travel expenditures by council members and city staffers, as well as all expenditures from council members' discretionary accounts.

Craig Powell, Eye on Sacramento's president, said in a statement Wednesday that he hopes the failing grade "will awaken the City Council from its slumber and motivate it to take the immediate actions necessary to open up its books to the city taxpayers who pay its bills."

It's much more difficult for Sacramento taxpayers to find out how their money is being spent than it is in other big cities. That needs to change.

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