Online check registers create window to government spending


From meal purchases for students on extracurricular activities to repairs for district vehicles, one-by-one the Denison Independent School District’s website lists each check that was written to pay for all the things needed to keep things running. The district is a part of a growing number of school districts, cities and counties that publish their check registers online.

 

“Government entities that proactively disclose check register information hold themselves accountable to constituents,” said Kristin McMurray, managing editor of Sunshine Review, a nonprofit focused on state and local government transparency.

The DISD website holds check register information dating back to 201o. “We publish our check register online for several reasons: to make it easy for people to see this information rather than require them to make a request and then get them a hard copy; it is part of our effort to be as transparent as possible and it is very easy to post/update this information every month,” DISD Assistant Superintendent Lee McNair said in an email.

Check registers and other such information is subject to the Texas Public Information Act and must be disclosed, with a few exceptions, to anyone who asks. However, TexasTransparency.org, a website operated by the Texas Comptroller’s Office and dedicated to local government transparency, says, in today’s world, taxpayers expect more than the ability to request a paper report and local governments should accommodate that.

“In a computer- and Internet-based society, government can no longer justify the money and time required to print reports,” the site says. “Publishing information online means no postage, no waiting for the mail, up-to-date documents and worldwide accessibility.”

The comptroller celebrates local governments for embracing that attitude through the Leadership Circle, a ranking system with three levels of awards. “The Texas Comptroller’s Leadership Circle program recognizes local governments across Texas that are striving to meet a high financial transparency online,” said Denison Finance Director Renee Waggoner.

In 2012, the city of Denison received gold, the highest level, which requires online publishing of the city’s adopted budget, annual or comprehensive financial report and check register. The Grayson County website, also includes the county’s check register, which has been there since 2008, said Grayson County Auditor Richie Rivers.

Both Sherman Independent School District and the city of Sherman do not currently publish their check registers on their websites.

“It’s just something we haven’t put on there, maybe in the future, but currently we don’t,” said SISD Assistant Superintendent of Finance Randy Reid. “We do have other financial transparency options in place such as adopted budgets, audit reports, and monthly financial reports.”

The city of Sherman also publishes similar transparency-related items on its website, including its annual budget and Comprehensive Annual Finance Report.

“It’s not just a matter of running a report (of the check register) and putting it on there,” Sherman Controller Mary Lawrence said. “There are some checks that are not public information.” She listed wage garnishments, health care-related expenses that could violate privacy laws if disclosed, and some police investigation expenses as examples of information that couldn’t be disclosed.

Lawrence said the city has been working on software to generate a report to output only the public information, but said that project has recently been put on the back-burner because of limited staff.

“That is something we would like to do,” she said of publishing the register online.

McMurray said the information is something tax payers can use to be a watchdog over their own local governments. “This information shows the heartbeat of government activity and invites citizens to conduct check-ups at will,” she said, suggesting a few ways tax payers can do that. “One of the ways that I would encourage citizens is to request a line-by-line item budget for previous years and then check against the check register for large increases or sudden cuts. I’d also tell them to look at vendors, to see if there is a conflict of interest, and travel expenses to start out.”

For more information on government transparency, visit http://www.texastransparency.org. For links to Denison’s, DISD’s, and Grayson County’s check registers and Sherman’s and SISD’s transparency-related documents find this article at http://www.heralddemocrat.com.