Campaign finance info could go onlineCity proposes electronic system for candidates, but concerns abound
By MATT STILES
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
City officials unveiled a proposed electronic system on Monday to make political candidates' campaign filings available in an online, searchable database — a change that would bring Houston in line with most other major cities.
The new system could require most city candidates to put their campaign contributions, expenditures and other political records in a database that would be accessible on the Internet.
If approved by the City Council, which still must decide key details, the system would let users search and see how much their representatives received and spent, who gave the contributions and in what quantities.
"It gives an unprecedented ability to get more information," Patrick Plummer, an information systems administrator with the city who helped develop the project, told the council's Ethics Committee on Monday. "There's really no easy, searchable way as it is today."
The system, which some open-government activists criticized for not going far enough to improve transparency in local campaigns, could be ready for next year's city elections.
Mayor Bill White directed the construction of the system after the Houston Chronicle reported in July that Houston is the nation's largest city without electronic disclosure.
Some see deficiencies Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, who chairs the committee and is overseeing the policy discussion at White's request, said Monday that she believes the system should be mandatory for most city candidates.
As drafted, it would exempt candidates who don't raise and spend much money, or those who declare they don't have access to a computer. Both exceptions track with state law.
Candidates now are only required to file the reports on paper. The public can read them or copy them for a fee at the City Hall Annex, 900 Bagby. Scanned copies, which lack the search and sort capabilities of electronic databases, also appear on the city secretary's Web site, www.houstontx.gov/city sec.
Candidates for state and federal offices have been required to file electronically for years, as have those in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and several other of the nation's largest cities.
While praising the city's effort, some advocates of stricter campaign reporting rules said the plan has deficiencies.
It's still an open question, for example, whether the council will require that full addresses of contributors be available online. Publicizing addresses helps differentiate among donors with common names, the advocates say, but it also raises privacy concerns.
Open government advocates also urged the city to require that candidates make an effort to identify and report the employers and occupations of their contributors, as already is mandated for state and federal campaigns. The information helps identify industries pushing candidates.
Without such disclosure it's more difficult to discern whether donors, for example, are real estate developers, engineers or lawyers who have business before the city.
White voiced concerns last week about regulating so strictly that lesser-funded candidates might be at a disadvantage.
"I don't want to get so draconian where everybody has to hire a high-priced consultant and get a special type of software in order to run for office," he said.
In general, however, "the more disclosure, the better," White said.
Alvarado said she shared White's concerns and would study the issue with city lawyers.
"I'm trying to have something here that's not too cumbersome and burdensome for candidates and officeholders, while at the same time striking a balance of transparency."
'It's very important'
Fred Lewis, an Austin lawyer who recommended electronic disclosure in Houston after his former nonprofit, Campaigns for People, studied the city's mayoral race in 2003, said he disagrees.
"It's very important, and I don't think it's much of a burden," he said of disclosing employers and occupations. "What I care is, what economic interest do (donors) represent."
Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based nonprofit group that favors tougher campaign-finance laws, said the city could require only that candidates make "best efforts" to get the information.
"How else are we going to know that there's not a conflict of interest here with city business?" he asked. "There are good reasons why the candidates and the public should know who these people are and where the money is coming from."