What Transparency? 

Oakland is spending $102,000 over the next three years on an online campaign finance system that few candidates and political committees are using.

Politicians often say they support government transparency. Reality, however, is sometimes a different story. Oakland city councilmembers, for example, voted last month to spend $102,000 over the next three years on a software system that gives voters access to campaign finance documents online. The idea was to allow residents to see who is funding political candidates without having to trek down to City Hall. However, as of early this week, only a few politicians and independent groups were actually using the new system, raising questions as to whether the $102,000 in taxpayer money is being well spent.

The main problem with the new system, which is made and run by NetFile, a Mariposa, California company, is that the council failed to make it mandatory. Politicians and independent groups, as a result, only have to file their campaign statements electronically if they want to. And so far, most of them apparently don't want to. "Very few people are using it," noted Tamika Thomas, assistant city clerk in charge of election monitoring.

In fact, of the eight sitting councilmembers, Larry Reid was the only one who filed electronically during the most recent reporting period — which came after the council decided to spend $102,000 on the new system, according to a review of the city's website earlier this week. And the only candidates running for election this fall who filed electronically were Dan Kalb, who is running for the North Oakland seat; Derrick Muhammad, who is vying for the West Oakland-Downtown council spot; James Harris, who is running for Oakland school board; and school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge, who is seeking reelection. Neither of the city attorney candidates — City Attorney Barbara Parker and Councilwoman Jane Brunner — filed electronically.

"You're paying for the system without requiring people to use it," noted Oliver Luby, an open-government advocate who used to work for the San Francisco Public Ethics Commission. "It's very curious it was done that way." In San Francisco, which uses the same system that Oakland purchased, electronic filing is mandatory for most candidates and political committees.

Oakland's voluntary system, meanwhile, also undermines the other main justifications for buying the new software. In a June 25 memo to the council, the City Clerk's Office recommended signing the NetFile contract because it would supposedly "eliminate the submission of excessive paper reports," and make it easier for city clerk staffers.

But so far, it's done neither. When the council voted on July 17 to sign the contract, it did not change city rules that require candidates and independent committees to file paper copies of their campaign statements. As a result, they're all still doing it — even the candidates and committees that filed the same information electronically. In addition, city clerk staffers must now scan the paper copies of the reports filed by candidates and committees that did not file electronically in order to post them on the city's website. In short, the NetFile system, because it's not mandatory, has created more work for city clerk staffers — not less.

The one positive thing about the new system is that after city clerk staffers scan the paper copies and post them on the website, voters can look at the PDF documents online. That's definitely an improvement over the old system of having to go down to City Hall. But because the scanned copies are PDFs, Oakland's system is still inferior to that of San Francisco and other agencies that require electronic filings.

In San Francisco, computer users can download campaign statements into Excel spreadsheets, which makes them easier to analyze and determine which donors are giving the most money in an election cycle and which candidates they're supporting. Unlike PDFs, spreadsheets also make it much easier to track whether donors and candidates are engaging in pay-to-play politics. That's because spreadsheets can be arranged in varying formats and compared to other databases, such as one listing government contractors.

But because Oakland's system is voluntary, voters can only analyze donor information from the candidates and groups that filed electronically. As a result, you can download Reid's latest filing into a spreadsheet, but not any other councilmember's. (It should be noted, however, that Oakland's online system is not that user-friendly; in fact, finding Reid's downloadable information is not easy.)

So why aren't more Oakland councilmembers, candidates, and independent groups embracing transparency? "That's a good question," said Councilwoman Libby Schaaf, who is generally regarded as an open-government advocate, yet as of Monday, had not yet filed electronically. And why didn't the council vote to make the new system mandatory? "That's also a good question," Schaaf said.

Full Disclosure uncovered no evidence that councilmembers purposely chose to make the system voluntary so that they wouldn't have to use it. Instead, it appears that the council just failed to realize that the NetFile system is not worth $102,000 over three years unless it's mandatory for candidates and independent groups. The council actually launched a trial run of the system last year. And at that time, it didn't make sense to make it mandatory — since it was just a trial. But then when the council approved the NetFile contract, it neglected to make electronic filing mandatory.

But the council should do so when it returns from its August recess. This coming election is an important one in Oakland, with five council and four school board seats up for grabs. The new system also is not burdensome. According to Kenneth Linney, treasurer for candidate Kalb, the NetFile software is simple to use.

Finally, it should be noted that three independent committees have filed electronically: the East Bay Rental Housing Association, which represents landlords; Oakland Jobs PAC, which represents large businesses; and OakPAC, the political arm of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

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