Atlanta’s Open Checkbook: a tool for transparency

Following a federal bribery probe investigating former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration’s muddy financial dealings, the City of Atlanta announced a new transparency tool called Atlanta’s Open Checkbook.

The Open Checkbook shows the City of Atlanta’s expenditure of more than $2 billion between 2017 and 2018.

“Rather than waiting for the public to ask or waiting for the media to ask, we are now making it available to you,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said, announcing the arrival of Atlanta’s Open Checkbook on Sept. 4.
Bottoms announced Atlanta’s Open Checkbook as the federal corruption investigation at City Hall intensified.

A City of Atlanta press release stated that a newly created Transparency Officer will ensure the city actively meets the requirements of the Georgia Open Records Act in addition to utilizing a mandatory training program pertaining to open records requests.

“There is no city in the state of Georgia that has been more aggressive in the space of ethics and transparency than Atlanta,” said Bottoms. “This ordinance will set the new standard for best practices in municipal government.”

Recently, Bottoms’ former Deputy Chief of Staff Katrina Taylor Parks, who also worked under Kasim Reed’s administration, pleaded guilty in federal court for accepting a bribe.

Bottoms suggested Atlanta’s Open Checkbook was announced before the federal bribery probe.

“This is something that was talked about very early in the administration,” Bottoms said to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC).

The City of Atlanta reported they were conducting maintenance on a website dedicated to open records compliance.

“Along with our new Open Checkbook online portal, [the Transparency Officer] appointment represents another major step in our progress to create one Atlanta – an affordable, equitable and transparent city, where government operates ethically and responsibly for all the people,” said Mayor Bottoms.

Yet, a recent purchase by the city council has already raised questions.
The city approved a $50,000 cooperative purchase in May from Socrata for maintenance services and software. The cooperative purchasing agreement allows local governments to buy goods and services that went through a competitive bidding process beforehand.

The city later learned they were not purchasing the software directly from Socrata, and instead were purchasing from a reseller of the company’s products. The reseller was not included in the cooperative agreement, which should have required open bidding in most cases.

Rather than partake in open bidding, the city purchased the software through special procurement, another method allowing the city to bypass the bidding process if the chief procurement officer deems the purchase is in the public’s interest.

The role of city bypass could undermine checks and balances when it comes to budgeting.

Sara Henderson, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, deplored the spending method.

“Going around the procurement process is exactly got us into the trouble and the mess at the airport and with other contracts around the city,” Henderson told Channel 2 Action News. The open checkbook’s purpose is “is to be open and transparent, but yet I don’t see that process playing out in awarding the contract of who’s going to keep up with this system.”

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a statement made by a city spokesperson to Channel 2 Action News said that the purchase was less than $100,000 and did not require council approval.

The City of Atlanta further justified their purchase.

“The City then proceeded with its procurement process and, pursuant to the City Code, determined that the circumstances met the criteria for a special procurement,” the city stated. “Other products were considered as required by the City’s Code.”