Saturday, December 19, 2020

1889 Institute: Legislature should reverse itself and increase transparency

Oklahoma Legislature Should Reverse Itself and Increase Transparency
By Byron Schlomach

Just out this year, Hugh Jackman stars in HBO’s Bad Education, a movie about Frank Tassone, the one-time superintendent of the Roslyn, New York school district who, along with an accomplice, stole $11.2 million in district funds. It’s been called the “largest public school embezzlement in U.S. history,” but is actually the “largest public school embezzlement ever discovered in U.S. history” since there is no way to be sure that a worse theft has not occurred.

Had Pamela Gluckin, Tassone’s partner in crime, not had her son buy $83,000 in home remodeling supplies with the school’s credit card, and alert Home Depot employees not called someone, Gluckin and Tassone likely would have gotten away with their theft.

The movie’s dramatization of a student reporter digging into filed receipts and investigating suspicious (fake) vendors reflects the hard work of real-life reporters at the time. But what if concerned individuals could look at a government entity’s transactions after downloading from the internet without filing Freedom of Information Act requests, going to court for access, or digging through boxes? A Tassone or Gluckin would likely steal no more than a pittance if others could look over their shoulders so easily.

The promise of transparency in government is that just the threat of someone getting a good look government’s transactions would be enough to discourage outright stealing and other untoward activities. And where it’s been done right, that is exactly what happens.

Done properly, transparency leads to greater public trust. Nevertheless, governments often resist giving information. The Oklahoma legislature actually required the state’s education agency to delete readily available spending data due to differences with federal data reporting. It is hard to imagine anything that could do more to bring about distrust of government.

Governor Stitt’s transparency initiative has made the State of Oklahoma overall more transparent than many states, but much is still left to be done. Local governments should be far more transparent, and the state still needs improvement.

The legislature should mandate a state-maintained website that provides a list of every government that presides over that citizen’s address. It should also mandate that all local governments provide for spending transparency and updated minimal contact information as well as basic information about upcoming elections. Basic information everybody needs to know, provided as simply as possible, should take precedence over the massive information overload that allows some to hide in plain sight.

Transparency is about more than just making information. Much more thought must be given to making information digestible. And right now, too much of the state’s information is available either in dribs and drabs or as water out of a firehose. Many local governments do not provide even that.

Byron Schlomach is 1889 Institute Director.


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