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Minneapolis gets D- for spending transparency

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: January 24, 2013 - 12:02 PM

Updated on Jan. 24 at 11:56 a.m.

Minneapolis is among the least transparent major cities in the country when it comes to posting spending data online, according to a new report.

The study of America's 30 largest cities, conducted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, gave Minneapolis a D- and 54 out of 100 possible points. It's unclear why Minneapolis was included in the survey, since it is the 48th largest city in the country.

Minneapolis lost most of its points for not providing "checkbook-level" spending data on its website, which would list "payments made by the city government to vendors." For examples of this, see New York City's checkbooknyc.gov (New York received an A rating) or Denver's equivalent site.

The report found that transparency websites often have a minimal cost per resident, with many coming in at or below 10 cents. But a "Minneapolis official," later identified as city spokesman Matt Lindstrom, told researchers that few people would directly use and benefit from a checkbook-level spending website.

“Given the costs, it would not be in the best interest of our taxpayers to dramatically increase our level of transparency," Lindstrom was quoted as saying.

UPDATE: Lindstrom provided MPLS with his full responses to U.S. PIRG, which illustrate the city's concerns that a spending website would not draw traffic. In 2009, the city created MinneapolisRecovery.us, which tracks how City Hall doled out stimulus dollars, "at a sizeable cost to both develop and maintain." But the homepage has drawn only 6,100 unique views over three years, while the second most-read page garnered 559 views and the vendor payment page got 483.

"To repurpose our current and historical spending data would be extremely labor intensive and a massive technological undertaking for city staff, likely costing the City hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars," Lindstrom wrote. "The cost of increasing our transparency efforts -- creating a website with checkbook-level spending data, for example -- far exceeds the benefit it would provide the small amount of users who are seeking this type of information in our city."

Lindstrom also noted that the city's annual financial report and budget are both award-winning for their quality.

Minneapolis did get credit, however, for posting performance metrics online in the form of Results Minneapolis. That's a program, started by Steve Bosacker, which asks a different city department every week to issue a report about how they are meeting various goals.

So what is online about city spending? The city budget, for one thing. It breaks down expected spending for each department, but doesn't say much about vendors.

For major contracts, residents need to check City Council agendas for reports issued prior to a vote. Bid invitations and requests for proposals are posted on the city's procurement site. Smaller contracts are much harder to track, however.

Hat tip: Nick Halter

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