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St. Pete should embrace data-driven initiative in fixing its archaic web-based campaign finance monitoring

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

There’s this really neat three-year initiative called What Works Cities. It’s a nationwide program aiming to accelerate the use of data in cities across the United States.

The idea is to give cities a hand in learning to make better use of and manage city data. That information can not only be used to engage the public and make government more effective, it is also a valuable tool for the media to track down certain sets of information.

The initiative is so promising it’s being supported by the Sunlight Foundation. Sunlight is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that encourages open government and tracks things like campaign finance and lobbying.

St. Pete is invited, along with numerous other qualifying cities, to participate in the initiative.

They should, and here’s why.

While the Sunshine City has just updated its website to a shiny new color scheme and layout, it still has a glaring, giant, “what the hell are you thinking” problem.

Campaign finance data.

Unlike state and county offices, campaign finance for candidates in St. Pete’s municipal elections are handled by the City Clerk, not the county Supervisor of Elections.

So what, right? No.

If you want to look up, say, how much money a Pinellas County Commission candidate has raised for an election, it’s quite simple. Click on the candidate’s tab, then campaign finance, then choose the appropriate election cycle from a drop-down and, voila, you have before your eyes that candidate and all his or her opponents laid out on one webpage with total contributions and expenditures listed for each.

Clicking on each candidate’s hyperlinked name takes the user to another page with those contributions and expenditures broken down by reporting period. An even deeper layer takes a curious information seeker to any one of those reporting periods to see a searchable list (think Control+F here folks) of who contributed what and what the candidate spent that money on.

If you want that same information on a St. Pete City Council member, pshhhh, buckle up – it’s going to be a long ride.

Here’s how this one goes. Let’s look at District 5 City Council member Steve Kornell, who is running for re-election. To find his campaign contributions and expenditures someone would have to click on three links before even getting to the right page – unless of course that person knows the direct URL, which is not likely.

From there you have to find a pull-down menu with campaign reports listed under it. After clicking that there’s a page with all current candidates and the available campaign documents available. The documents also seem to sporadically be available in a “documents center” on that same page.

So far it doesn’t sound too tricky, right? It gets better.

Once into the campaign documents one thing becomes painfully clear – it’s a scanned copy of the actual campaign treasurer’s report.

This is a big deal not because it looks funny in, you know, 2015, but because it’s not searchable. If I want to know if a certain person has contributed to Kornell’s campaign, I can’t just ‘Control+F’ my way to an answer.

Nope. Instead I have to scroll through 23 pages of hand-written contributions to find a name. If I don’t see that name the first go around, it’s a pretty good idea to check again because, quite frankly, 23 pages is a lot to look through – maybe I missed something.

Back over at VotePinellas.com (kudos web design and IT guys over there!) I can type in something as simple as – gasp – A NAME!

But wait, like an infomercial, there’s more!

As the reporting periods come and go, each campaign report gets scanned in and linked to, leaving a list of campaign treasurer reports potentially quite long.

Over at the county, a quick glance would identify periods in which there were no contributions or expenditures or in which there were particularly high levels of either. A quick once over can identify any trends – good months, bad months, a possible swing in favorability or a drop off in campaigning.

The folks over at St. Pete make that a might bit harder. See, as that list grows to five reports to 10 reports to 15 reports, etc. keeping track of it and identifying those things becomes increasingly difficult.

Click. Scroll. Click. Scroll. Click. Scroll. And rinse/repeat.

This isn’t meant to be a lazy rant. A job is a job and this reporter is glad she lives in a country where those documents are even available.

Instead, what I’m wondering is, when you have a city that just gave its website a snazzy new makeover (and she is a beaut now, don’t get me wrong) why not take the extra step of bringing campaign finance out of 1995 scanning technology (that crap was crazy awesome back then!) and into the 21st Century?

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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