Five months after pulling the plug on a $5 million budget transparency program, the Florida Senate passed a bill Wednesday to create a task force to increase transparency but moved no closer to offering the public real-time access to budget data.
The measure, SB 1764, would consolidate most of the state’s nine so-called transparency web sites, allowing the public access to employee data, budget documents and contracts. But before the new web site is available, a task force will be created to recommend a design for consolidating them.
The bill also creates four positions in the Department of Financial Services to manage the contracting system. But for public records advocates, the Senate’s effort is too little too late.
“The public should be able to follow our money in real time and be afforded an opportunity to participate in the budget process,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of the independent government watchdog group Integrity Florida. “It’s disappointing to see lawmakers continue to delay the public launch of a consolidated budget tracking website.”
He believes the state could be using open source software for budget transparency “that is available now for free.”
But Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who sponsored the Senate bill said creating a web site that allows the public to search data from many sources, “is easy to say but it’s really hard to do.”
Ring, a former executive with Internet giant Yahoo! believes it is going to take several months before the state can create a web site that meets the goals of the legislation.
“Essentially with all the web sites that we have right now it’s trying to consolidate and, over time, to have a single portal to make it easier for the citizens of Florida to see what’s going on with their government,’’ he told the Senate before it was approved unanimously.
Meanwhile, the Senate’s $5 million “Transparency 2.0” project to provide legislators and their staff a searchable database to search budget, planning, payroll and contracting documents continues to cause headaches.
The web site was created by Spider Data Services but never launched by the Senate, even though it was highly regarded by open records advocates. Had it be available, lawmakers would know where the more than $25 million for the state's Polytechnic University was coming from, and they could have seen that $9.1 million of it was spent between July and December. It could have determined which contracts had been extended and which ballooned in cost. And it would have provided a check on the items inserted into the budget at the last minute by leadership.
But the Senate now refuses to pay the $500,000 it owes to the contract developers, Spider Data Services, and now the lawyer for the company has threatened the Senate with a lawsuit.
"If I have to file the suit, there is no realistic defense available to the Senate,’’ wrote Kenneth Oertel, a Tallahassee lawyer for Spider Data Services in an email to the Senate’s general counsel on Tuesday.
“All that will happen is that the suit will be a media item and a lot of time will be spent pointing fingers. This will not appear to be a flattering event for the Senate, and, at best, will create an embarrassing distraction.”
He urged the Senate to come to a settlement on the payment or “the lawsuit will be filed soon.”
Oertel’s email came after Senate general counsel George Levesque told him that the Senate has no intention of paying what remains owed on the contract, which was signed by former Senate chief of staff Steve MacNamara under Haridopolos.
MacNamara left Haridopolos’ office to work for Gov. Rick Scott and arranged to have management of the transparency program transferred to the governor’s office, which was given $2.5 million to pay for it.
Since MacNamara left the governor’s office, Scott’s office has refused to implement the transparency program and have raised questions, along with Levesque, about business links between MacNamara, his friend Jim Eaton, and the owners of Spider Data, Anna Mattson and Sherri Taylor. Eaton is the company’s lobbyist and, according to a Herald/Times report, has a business relationship with Mattson to promote the technology to cities and counties.
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said in December he is conducting an investigation into the contract but nothing has been announced.
Given these developments, Levesque wrote, the Senate refuses to pay.
"To continue making payments on such a contract after these facts haven come to light is unconscionable,’’ Levesque wrote in the March 20 letter. "The Senate will not abide spending more public money on a product that was questionably procured, barely used by state employees, and not maintained or retained in a manner justifying the significant public expense invested in the product."
Oertel told the Herald/Times the letter astonished him.
"This whole case is about a program my client prepared for the Senate to foster open government and has been highly praised by public interest groups. But if it’s done such a good job, I don’t understand why they’re so antagonistic about it,’’ he said. "This was something that was done under President Mike Haridopolos and I guess President Gaetz doesn’t like the deal."
Oertel said he is confident the claim will be an easy one for a court to decide. "They signed a contract and didn’t pay their bill,’’ he said. "It’s not a complicated thing to say to a court."