Sacramento County makes it too hard for citizens to learn about campaign finance

No really, show us the money

What is a reasonable price for government transparency? For several years now, California’s cities and counties have been putting campaign-finance information online, so that residents can find out who gives money to local politicians.

Want to know who’s funding the campaigns of your local school board or currying favor with your representative on the county Board of Supervisors or bankrolling the district attorney? Most Californians can find out with just a few clicks.

But not Sacramento County residents. Here, if you want to find out about local campaign cash, you have to travel to the county registrar’s office on Florin Road. There, you can sit at a computer terminal in the lobby and look through reports one by one. You’ll need to take a lot of notes, unless you want to pay a county employee to make photocopies for you.

Maybe not so bad for reporters who, in theory, get paid to do that sort of thing. But what if you have a real job and can’t get to south Sac by closing time? What if you’re on public transit? What if you can’t afford the photocopies?

Among the 10 most populous counties in California, Sacramento County is the only county that does not provide campaign-finance information online. And many smaller counties are way ahead of us as well. Here, citizens have no reasonably easy way to find out who is funding the campaigns of important offices like county supervisor, school board, district attorney, sheriff or SMUD board. That information is out of reach.

Contrast this with the system used by the city of Sacramento. If you want information about who’s funding one side or another in the arena fight, or your local city council contest, you can easily download campaign-finance reports from your laptop, tablet or smartphone. The city’s system will also spit out a handy spreadsheet file for use in Microsoft Excel or similar software, so anyone can slice and dice the data, analyze and share.

Most large counties in California, along with bigger cities like Sacramento, use a system called NetFile. The city of Sacramento pays about $30,000 for its NetFile account. Not exactly cheap, but neither is paying clerks to wait on document seekers and to make photocopies for them.

“Even looking at it selfishly, it saves a lot of staff time by having it on the Web 24-seven,” explained Sacramento City Clerk Shirley Concolino.

NetFile vice-president Tom Diebert told Bites it would cost $40,000 to hook Sacramento County up. The county should look at all options, but that’s not much money in a $2 billion general fund. Not considering how much accessibility and transparency it would buy. (Don’t forget, the county blew $21,000 just buying new furniture for county executive Brad Hudson’s office a couple years ago.)

But maybe money isn’t the only issue. “We’re just comfortable with the paper,” explained Alice Jarboe, assistant county registrar.

Are we? In a time when corporations are considered people and campaign cash is considered speech, disclosure is one of the few tools we have to counter the influence of money in politics. Are we really comfortable putting this important information out of reach of our citizens, while the large majority of Californians live in places with much greater transparency?

How about this? Let citizens take the files the county already has in its possession and put them on an outside website for the public to access. It would be easy to do.

But there are unnecessary obstacles to this solution, too. The county requires candidates and committees to turn in their campaign reports as a paper hard copy, rather than any sort of useful electronic document. The county then takes those paper hard copies and scans them, generating TIFF image files, which aren’t searchable and that are hard to work with if you want to do any sort of analysis.

As this column was going to print, Jarboe told Bites that the county’s legal counsel has agreed the county registrar could turn over the TIFF files to any member of the public who requests them. They’re clunky, and anyone who wants to post them online may have to redact the addresses of individual donors. Bites has been trying to get an answer from the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission on that. But they’re a little bit better than nothing.

This is basic stuff. Sacramento County can meet the same standard of transparency that most California residents enjoy, and our democracy would be healthier for it. It’s an easy problem, if we’re not too comfortable to fix it.