What We Do

Community Engagement & Action

ACTS Organization

Halfway through project, Turner halts work on city's financial transparency website

Turner shut down a project in the comptrollers office that would have increased the amount of city payment, payroll, and financial data available to the public online.

Earlier this year, the city controller’s office and a consultant began work on a financial transparency platform that would allow the public to view more specific details about city payments, payroll information and other financial data.


Just about every other major city in the country already has a version of the online platform, dubbed Checkbook. Houston’s version was funded in the controller’s budget and authorized by information technology staff in Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration.


Until it was not.


Turner shut down the project in April, with an IT staffer telling the controller’s office via email that it was on hold “indefinitely or until further notice.”


Controller Chris Brown said the city already has paid Sierra Digital half its $80,000 fee under a contract to build the platform and that the vendor had completed about half its work before it was shut down.


“We couldn’t really figure out why it was canceled,” Brown said. “It concerns me, No. 1, that we’re not at the same level as all these other major cities in the country. We’re way behind the game. And then, that we got this started and now we’re stopping.”


The move pits the independently elected financial watchdog against the mayor’s office. The project began in Brown’s office but requires data and other resources from the city’s IT and finance departments, which report to Turner.


“I guess the mayor doesn’t really believe in financial transparency,” Brown emailed staffers after the project was nixed.



Turner’s office declined to answer questions about the decision to halt the project, issuing a statement that simply said, “All of the information is readily available, and the item is currently under review.”


Turner made a similar argument to the City Council last week, saying he needed more information from the Finance Department about the project cost.


The controller said the platform would need about $20,000 per year in maintenance after the initial $80,000 build-out. Brown said he plans to cover that annual amount in his department’s budget.


“All the information we’re talking about is already available. This is now about, how do you further present it so people can access it online,” Turner told council members last week. “As soon as (the Finance Department is) able to provide me with a detailed assessment, then I will be in a better position to decide how we will proceed.”


In May, as the administration was crafting its budget, Turner’s chief of staff, Marvalette Hunter, offered a different explanation for the pause. She wrote in a memo that the administration had never formally approved the project, which now was outranked by “competing priorities.”


An authorization letter from March, though, was signed by several administration officials, including Chief Information Officer Lisa Kent.


The new platform would be much more robust and interactive than the information Houston currently makes available, according to Brown. The controller already offers a vendor database, and the administration publishes budget documents and monthly financial reports online.


Under Houston’s existing system, users can search for city payments and find them organized by date, vendor and amount. For example, the site lists some $14.2 million in payments sent out Monday, from a $61,783 payment to Clean Earth Environmental Solutions to a $10 charge from FedEx. It does not list what those charges were for, and which department paid them.


In Austin, which uses a version of the Checkbook program, the listing for a $278,000 payment to Pinnacle Petroleum Inc. on Friday provides a breakdown of four charges for diesel fuel and ethanol. It includes links to the purchase order, contract and the 2019 City Council agenda item that authorized the purchase.


In New York City, which helped pioneer the platform, users can browse the highest city salaries by position, including the chancellor of education ($363,350) and chief actuary ($311,890). Houston’s payroll information is available only through public information requests.


At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn said she and her staff have been tinkering with other cities’ systems, and she hoped the administration will allow the Houston project to go forward. She has asked about the stoppage at recent council meetings.


“I just like that you can go from a broad budget category down to the actual payments,” Alcorn told the Chronicle on Tuesday.“It’s all public record, let’s just get it out there.”

Alcorn said it could help the city save money on public information requests, as well, which take up significant amounts of staff time. If the information was easily accessible online, those requests presumably would dwindle, she said.


Doug Smith, who serves on the Alief Super Neighborhood Council and closely follows the city’s budget process, said he first heard about the program a couple years ago, when Brown mentioned it during a meeting of the Super Neighborhood Alliance.


“I just thought, why in the hell is this not something the city should jump on,” Smith said. Of the mayor’s decision to halt the project, he added, “It’s difficult for me to understand, other than this creates transparency and (the mayor) does not like transparency to show exactly what he is doing.”


The city on Tuesday launched a website and database for its expenditures using roughly $600 million in federal COVID-19 relief money. Guidelines for the American Rescue Plan Act required cities to do so, and Brown argued that it could have lumped in that program with the Checkbook platform.


“I know politics is a strange thing, but this one is just doing the right thing,” he said.

0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Infrastructure must be a good deal for our health

Clean air, water and healthy climate at stake in bipartisan package. WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of senators met Tuesday afternoon to prepare for a vote planned Wednesday on a $1.2 trillion Bipar