Controller’s website opens local governments’ books

Controller’s website opens local governments’ books

Chiang-Website-300x186State Controller John Chiang continues to deliver on his promise of government transparency.

The state’s chief financial officer announced Monday a new open-data website that provides Californians with more than a decade’s worth of financial data for local governments.

The site,, includes more than 13 million fields of financial data for 450 incorporated cities and 58 counties.

For example, click on: the 2013 City Revenues.

“We’re moving government accountability and transparency out of the analog dark ages into the digital era where information about how much your city or county is spending and borrowing is available with a keystroke,” Chiang said in a press release announcing the website’s launch. “By providing balance sheet details for every California municipality on one website and allowing users to slice and dice the information to spot trends and analyze spending, I hope to empower communities to become more involved in civic decision-making.”

Tool for citizen activists, government watchdogs

chiang.lcokyerSince 1911, the Controller’s Office has been required by state law to track financial data and budget allocations for local government bodies. However, that important data largely has been kept away from meaningful public access — left in nearly unusuable paper documents.

The controller believes the new website will make it easier for citizens to look up data, download raw numbers, create charts and search for other financial data. Among the data at citizens’ fingertips: local government revenues, expenditures, liabilities, assets and even fund balances.

The immense amount of data will allow citizen activists and government watchdogs to peruse data for their hometown and, in turn, question how their government officials are spending public funds.

Praise from local governments

Even local government leaders, who will face increased scrutiny about their finances with the website’s creation, have praised the open-data effort.

“The State Controller’s new open-data website is a significant step in enhancing transparency in government at all levels,” said Matt Cate, executive director of the California State Association of Counties. “It provides the public with the tools to better understand and engage in our government process. We applaud the Controller for utilizing state-of-the-art technology to develop a tool that puts valuable public information right at the fingertips of our residents.”

That sentiment was echoed by his counterpart at the League of California Cities. “We commend the Controller for finding an effective way to make key city financial data much more accessible and useful to taxpayers and local agencies alike,” said Chris McKenzie, the LCC’s executive director.

Chiang’s open government track record

This isn’t the only open-data website published by the state controller.

Last December, reported on the success of, which tracks public employee payroll data for hundreds of thousands of public employees in California. Chiang built that website with no additional state budget funds or expanded statutory authority. By comparison, it took 55 government contractors and $394 million in taxpayer funds to build President Obama’s online health-insurance marketplace.

In 2010, following the high-profile corruption case at the City of Bell, Chiang didn’t wait around for local governments to clean up their acts. He ordered cities, counties and special districts, under Government Code sections 12463 and 53892, to share salary and other wage information with his office. Initially, some local governments balked, then dragged their feet in disclosing the payroll data. In the years since, the State Controller’s office has boosted the compliance rate to 99 percent.

Taxpayers can expect more transparency. Later this fall, Chiang’s office plans to introduce further upgrades to the website that will provide data for each of California’s approximately 130 pension systems.

That pension data can’t come soon enough. This week, an audit by Chiang of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System found that taxpayers are responsible for nearly $800 million in obligations from “legal” pension spiking.

With more citizen watchdogs analyzing data provided by the controller’s office, taxpayers will be better positioned to combat pension abuses.

Treasurer’s race

Chiang, a Democrat, is term-limited out of the controller’s office and is running for state treasurer. His Republican opponent in November is Greg Conlon, an accountant and former president of the California Public Utilities Commission.

Conlon is campaigning to advance pro-growth tax strategies, reduce the state’s pension-fund debt and improve the state’s bond ratings.

The campaign to replace Chiang as controller pits Democrat Betty Yee, a member of the Board of Equalization, against Republican Ashley Swearengin, the mayor of Fresno.

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