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VINDY.COM ADDS WATCH SITE TO EASILY TRACK GOVERNMENT SPENDING
By Ashley Luthern and Elise Franco
The Vindicator launches Government Watch online today, giving readers the building blocks to track how tax dollars are spent.
Government Watch will provide salary and budget information for government entities — a beneficial service, said Aimee Edmondson, a longtime journalist and assistant professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.
“Most people don’t have time to go to the courthouse or to go the various places they need to get the public records. To have one-stop shopping, I think, is valuable,” she said.
Ensuring government transparency can be time-consuming. Some government entities responded to requests from The Vindicator for information in a reasonable amount of time, as required by law. Other entities have yet to comply fully with requests, citing technical or other barriers.
Reporters at The Vindicator began to file Freedom of Information requests with Valley entities in early March to start the project. The goal is to have raw budget data reflecting every government salary and budget online and available within the year.
Boardman and Poland townships and Salem and Struthers schools responded to the request and provided the information electronically, as asked. The Western Reserve Joint Fire District did respond promptly, but with a paper printout, which will appear as PDFs on the Government Watch page on Vindy.com.
The Poland school district did respond in part, but did not include salaries as requested.
Documents from Youngstown and Mahoning County collected during those governments’ budget processes are included on the site.
Government Watch also links to outside websites and blogs that work in the public interest. If readers want to search by individual teacher name for salary and pension information, The Buckeye Institute link is a key resource. Much of the video work of Vindicator Columbus correspondent Marc Kovac appears on his Capital Blog, which is updated daily.
There are direct links to the Ohio Ethics Commission and Ohio Ethics Law, too.
Another Government Watch feature provides at-a-glance recaps of who voted for what in both chambers of the Ohio General Assembly.
Government Watch will link to relevant stories written by Vindy staffers, and readers are encouraged to interact with the material by posting comments to stories on Twitter using the #govwatch hashtag.
“I can’t think of anything in a democracy more important than an informed citizenry,” said David Marburger, an Ohio attorney specializing in public records who also represents The Vindicator. “It’s obviously important to people who pay taxes; it serves the people.”
Edmondson said the public, including reporters, often don’t realize what information is available through open records law.
Under Ohio’s Sunshine Law, although there are exemptions, “the baseline is you assume it’s open and ... a lot of people don’t take the time or have the time to investigate that,” she said.
Edmondson added that increasingly newspapers are linking to records in stories because of additional space provided online.
“When you write ‘according to records,’ a lot of times in the story we don’t say where we got the record, and an average reader might not understand where we’re quoting from,” Edmondson said.
Posting the original documents online “will help with our credibility in an era when we’re perceived as not as credible as we should be,” she said.
The information provided is just a start for Government Watch, but even what’s available now makes for interesting comparisons.
For example, budget information for three police departments, Youngstown, Boardman and Poland Township, show differences in uniform allowance.
In 2010, full-time patrolmen in Youngstown were allotted $542.40 annually for uniforms; all full-time officers in Boardman, $1,000; and those in Poland $850. Even within this relatively narrow parameter, there are different rules based on contracts. An officer in Boardman must purchase his or her bulletproof vest using the uniform allowance, whereas an officer in Poland does not. A bulletproof vest usually costs between $600 and $800 and lasts five years.
Kyle Miasek, Youngstown deputy finance director, said the $542.40 uniform allotment for patrolmen was a negotiated decrease in the new contract. Patrolmen will receive their full allotment, $1,085, this year. Ranking officers negotiated to waive all of their uniform allowance in 2010. They’ll receive $1,050 in this year.
Miasek said officers’ contracts don’t stipulate that the money has to be used solely for uniforms.
“They’re not required to submit documentation supporting what they use the money for,” he said. “For at least six years, that’s what’s been in place.”
In Youngstown, patrolmen receive about $805 annually in hazard pay, ranking officers, about $780; Boardman and Poland Township officers do not receive hazard pay.
— Karl Henkel contributed to this article.