By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
Within hours after Superstorm Sandy departed the area, some of the local papers were calling to ask how much the storm had cost the city in damage, in overtime, in supplies. We didn’t answer – and we still haven’t answered – because cities have to be very careful about compiling and verifying the costs of natural disasters that the state and federal government have declared emergencies. Some of those costs are reimbursable, and you want to make sure your calculations are watertight before submitting them for compensation.
But that kind of reticence about costs and data is increasingly rare in Somerville. You can find a tremendous amount of current data on our website, especially financial data. Visit our open data web portal data.somervillema.gov, and you’ll find the details of the city’s finances both in our annual budgets and in the running list of expenditures published via the Open Checkbook feature. A list of compensation levels for employees who make $50,000 or more annually – information that one of our local newspapers previously obtained by an annual public documents request (the state equivalent of a Freedom of Information request) – is also now available to everyone at the same data portal.
That kind of openness and transparency doesn’t give our city any special claim to virtue: public budgets should be open to public scrutiny. It’s as simple as that. But this year we will be working to extend that transparency and accountability into new areas, and if we succeed, Somerville will be even further ahead of the curve when it comes to letting the sun shine in on public-funded programs.
Back in August, I submitted a proposal to the Board of Aldermen for an updated ethics ordinance that requires organizations funded by government grants or municipal trust funds to publish codes of ethics for their officers and managers. Under the terms of the new law, if your organization is funded by a grant or trust fund, you cannot award a contract or make an expenditure that benefits your family or that benefits a “business organization in which [you are] serving as officer, director, trustee, partner or employee,” or that benefits a company that you may want to give you a job. If your organization is unwilling or unable to adopt such policy, the new law says that you will be bound by the city’s conflict-of-interest policies and by the restrictions that state law imposes on municipal employees.
And, best of all, the new rules require applicants for grants to disclose any possible conflicts of interest while requiring that those receiving public monies “open their books for a full review whenever asked to: A grantee or subgrantee must, upon request, furnish to the City Auditor for audit all books, records, and other information necessary for the City Auditor to account fully for the use and expenditure of grant or trust funds received by the grantee or subgrantee.”
If a grantee fails to meet these standards, the city is entitled under the new law to suspend payments, and even to demand repayment of previously disbursed funds. It’s a set of rules that would apply to any organization that gets funds from state or federal grants administered by the city, or from city-operated trust funds.
This new ethics ordinance is timely, and why I look forward to working with the Board of Aldermen in getting it onto the books. Municipalities like ours have increasingly found themselves required to turn to a blend of tax revenues, grants, and public-private partnerships to fund major initiatives like our SomerPromise program for young people, and even for long-term development of recreational and other facilities. Commingling different funding sources provides greater flexibility but also demands greater levels of scrutiny and accountability. Under this new ordinance, state and federal sources of the grant would retain the ultimate authority to exercise oversight over the grants they provide, as they always have. But the city will now also have the ability to protect the public’s investment.
And by the way, when we finish our storm-related cost analysis, we will share those figures with the public at the same time that we share them with other government agencies. It’s the public’s money, and the public has a right to know how we’re managing the funds in our care. A little extra sunshine is always welcome, and that’s especially true after a storm.