City of Atlanta’s attempts at transparency questioned
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms unveiled her open checkbook initiative in April, promising to “set a new standard for government transparency.”
But nearly four months later, the program that will allow citizens to track city spending to the penny via on online portal is not operational. And Tuesday, the chairman of the city council’s finance committee questioned the manner in which the software was purchased.
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“The irony here is that the service we are trying to procure is going to provide a whole lot more transparency into city financing,” said City Councilman Howard Shook. “I would think if there is ever any proposal that we are going to enter into an agreement with, regarding transparency, certainly the nature of the procurement itself has to be kind of a model procurement.”
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms talks to the crowd during her first State of the City speech in Atlanta GA Wednesday, May 2, 2018. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
(The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Bottoms’ announcement about the portal came just as a federal corruption investigation at City Hall was gaining momentum. Allowing the public to view all city payments online, she said, would help restore trust. Though the idea had been proposed by council members earlier, it was resisted by former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration.
The new administration planned to purchase software and maintenance services from the company Socrata through a cooperative purchasing agreement, an arrangement that allows local governments to buy goods and services that have already undergone a competitive bidding process.
The city council approved the $50,000 cooperative purchase in May.
However, the administration later learned that it was not purchasing the software directly from Socrata, but instead from a reseller of the company’s products. That reseller wasn’t part of the cooperative agreement, which would usually require open bidding.
Rather than go through that, the administration opted to purchase the software through another method: special procurement, which allows the city to bypass the bidding process if the chief procurement officer determines doing so is in the public interest.
On June 29, the interim Chief Procurement Officer Susan Garrett signed a document authorizing the special procurement.
But Shook said the document doesn’t provide enough detail about why competitive bidding would have not been in the public’s interest.
“My guess is we will be comfortable with it once we get an explanation,” he said. “There are cases that call for special procurements.”
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Sara Henderson, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said the process shouldn’t have been used in this instance.
“Going around the procurement process is exactly got us into the trouble and the mess at the airport and with other contracts around the city,” Henderson told Channel 2 Action News. The whole purpose of the open checkbook initiative is “is to be open and transparent, but yet in that (Garrett’s) letter … you certainly don’t see that process playing out in awarding the contract of who’s going to keep up with this system.”
In a statement to Channel 2 Action News, a city spokesperson said that the purchase was less than $100,000 and did not require council approval.
“The City then proceeded with its procurement process and, pursuant to the City Code, determined that the circumstances met the criteria for a special procurement,” the statement said. “Other products were considered as required by the City’s Code.”