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Campaign finance database likely on the way

Tuesday, June 30, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

If a plan that City Council has initiated pans out by campaign season, local watchdogs will have a new, convenient tool on their hands for monitoring political contributions in the next election.

Council adopted a resolution Thursday that directs city staff to return with an ordinance in August that would require candidates, officeholders and political committees to submit their campaign finance reports electronically.

Staff would use that data to create an online contribution and expenditure database by February that is public, searchable, downloadable and sortable based on filer, contributor and more.

The database would be based on reports that the Texas Election Code and city code already require the parties in question to submit on a regular basis.

Currently, the Office of the City Clerk uploads these reports to its website as digital scans of typed or handwritten documents.

The ordinance is due back at the next regular Council meeting on Aug. 6. If it passes, staff will have 30 days to come up with an electronic filing system implementation plan for review by the Audit and Finance Committee.

According to Council Member Leslie Pool, who reviewed the proposal as a member of the Audit and Finance Committee, the project would cost the city only about $8,000. “We did work through the cost of this. We are taking it entirely in-house,” she said.

“We’d be working with a fairly simplified Excel worksheet,” Pool continued. “We’re hoping to have this ready to go for the next election cycle.”

City Clerk Jannette Goodall explained how her office would tackle the project. “Our goal is to make it as simple and streamlined as possible,” she said.

The Ethics Review Commission has strongly supported the idea. It recommended on April 28 that Council “adopt electronic filing requirements for campaign finance reports, encourage creation of an online searchable database of campaign finance reports, and provide adequate funding to institute the online filing and database.”

Goodall pointed out that filers would still be required to submit hard copies of their reports to her office in person in order to comply with notary regulations.

“This is not e-filing, as in you fill out your information and click a button and it goes off – because that is the expensive part of this project,” Goodall said. She added that staff will be considering potential ways to move to a fully electronic system in the future.

Previously, the Audit and Finance Committee discussed instructing staff to create a more sophisticated electronic filing system and database, but determined that the approach would be too expensive.

Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Pio Renteria and Don Zimmerman all noted that they were concerned about the cost of the original proposal but would support the new one.

“I was a little distressed to hear that the first look at this was something which was going to be really costly,” said Adler.

Zimmerman said he was “definitely” supportive of the project at its current budget. “I would not support it with a high price tag, but that’s reasonable,” he said.

Pool noted that the resolution does not set in motion all that Council hopes to accomplish, but it does begin the process. “A journey of a thousand miles begins by taking the first step, and that’s what we’re doing here,” she said. “I thank staff for helping us begin to chart that path forward.”

Council voted unanimously in favor of the resolution, with the exception of Council Member Ora Houston, who was not present.

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