TALLAHASSEE Open government advocates increased the heat on state officials to unleash access to a budget transparency web site Friday as the Senate president continued to distance himself from the site under his control.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, announced the he was asking Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, to develop legislation to create a “user-friendly, accurate, cost-effective, web-based transparency tool” for the state budget that could include or replace the system developed by Spider Data Systems.
The state has already spent at least $4.5 million on the Spider Data budget transparency program, called Transparency 2.0, under a contract signed by former Senate President Mike Haridopolos but kept the web site under wraps. The rare, sole-source contract allowed for the company to use its patented technology to merge state budget, contract, personnel and accounting data into a single portal to allow legislators and staff to track how government money is spent.
But the powerful search functions of the web site allow weaken the ability of legislative leaders and budget staffers to control the flow of information in Tallahassee and the program has never been rolled out formally for lawmakers to use.
Integrity Florida and the First Amendment Foundation called upon Gaetz, Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Will Weatherford to allow a public demonstration of Transparency 2.0 “so the public can see what $5 million of their money purchased and make an informed judgment about their investment,” said Dan Krassner, director of Integrity Florida, in a conference call with reporters on Friday.
Their report, “Budget Transparency of the Sunshine State,” reviewed the functions of the existing TransparencyFlorida.gov web site and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater’s contract search site and concluded the Transparency 2.0 site was far superior.
“What we saw was a web site that, if made public, would give the citizens of Florida, and our state policy makers, the opportunity to see all the spending, find waste and save millions of dollars for Florida taxpayers,’’ Krassner said. “Why not allow the public to identify costs savings?”
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, compared the operation of Transparency 2.0 to a cell phone, while the existing web site offered to the public was like using a rotary phone.
“Transparency 2.0 connects all the dots for me and gave me some dots I wasn’t really expecting,’’ Petersen said, after using the system. “The idea that we would not allow public access to this web site is quite alarming to me.”
Spider Data signed its contract with the Senate in February 2011 when Haridopolos was Senate president and Steve MacNamara was his chief of staff. Gaetz and Sen. Lisbeth Benacquisto were among the senators shown a demonstration of the program in the fall of 2011 when it was ready to launch.
The Senate choose not to make the program available to lawmakers and staff and, in June 2012, drafted a memorandum of understanding to transfer management of the program to Scott. The legislature also included $2.5 million in the 2012-13 budget for the governor to develop a transparency web site for public access that provides all the functions of the Transparency 2.0 system. Scott did not veto the money.
After the Herald/Times disclosed that lawmakers were poised to shelve the program when the contract with the vendors expires at the end of the month, Gaetz scheduled a meeting with the Spider Data System developers on Thursday to ask them questions. He did not seek a demonstration of the program.
In a letter to the Senate on Friday, Gaetz said he learned then that the Senate does not own the software and must pay an additional $1 million a year to continue its contract with the vendor to keep the site current – information spelled out in the 2011 contract.
He said he also demanded to know the names of the owners of the company and they told him “they will get back to me.”
“I’d like to know whose doing business with us, who owns stock in the company, who stands to benefit from this extraordinarily expensive contract which, it turns out, the people of Florida don’t own,” Gaetz told the Herald/Times in an interview.
The developers of the software program and principal owners of Spider Data are Anna Mattson, who once worked for the House budget office a decade ago, and Sherri Taylor, an information technology expert. Mattson has told the Herald/Times that she also has a partnership with lobbyist Jim Eaton in another company that was formed to promote the software for use in local governments.
Gaetz also noted that the system appears to include incomplete budget data because it fails to include "fund transfers" between agencies. Under the contract Haridopolos agreed to, the Senate is allowed 600 licenses to access the site and has the authority to tell the vendors who can get them. No where in Gaetz's letter does he tell senators how to obtain access to the site.
Anna Mattson, president of Spider Data Systems, said in a statement that she is addressing Gaetz's concerns but added, "our contract ends December 31, 2012, and we are not seeking to renew our contract with the Senate."
Gaetz said in his letter that he concluded Transparency 2.0 “contains many valuable features, as do a variety of products and services brought before the legislature each year. The question we must answer is which product will provide the most value to the taxpayers of Florida.”
Gaetz has asked Ring to review the Transparency 2.0 web site and provide him with “information on costs and a potential timetable for improving existing public websites with more user-friendly features in order to do a cost and functional comparison with the Spider Data product.”
"There's a commitment to have a transparency web site, not just for the Senate, but for citizens to use,'' Ring told the Herald/Times. He conceded that the current law, which allows the Senate and House to sign no-bid, single source contracts without following the same rules as state agencies is "not fair" and his committee will consider changing that law.
Gaetz and Ring have both filed financial disclosure forms indicating their financial interest in Mercurian, a Web-based healthcare company to help children and caregivers of autistic children.
Krassner said Gaetz’ letter raises more questions than it answers.
“Why would they want to waste the $5 million that has already been spent?” he asked. “There’s a product that’s available now. The public paid for it and we should be able to see it and use it.”
Krassner said that it is now appears that it’s up to the governor to preserve the $5 million spent by taxpayers.
“There’s a tremendous opportunity for Gov. Scott,’’ Krassner said. “He can become the transparency governor and leave a lasting legacy for Florida if he decides to launch this web site.’’