Wednesday marked a quiet anniversary: The deadline for many city employees and elected officials to file their annual financial disclosure forms.
The forms, required by the city ethics code for the mayor, his staff, city department heads, and members and staff of City Council, require said employees to disclose personal information like private debts, independent sources of income and investments — all in the interest of shining light on the dark corners where conflicts of interest could potentially arise.
But that requirement notwithstanding, right now those corners are still pretty dark and dusty.
The forms are not posted online. And while any member of the public may view them, doing so generally requires a trip to the city’s Department of Records — itself a rather dusty corner of City Hall, where the records can be viewed, on paper, in person, or copied, on paper, for a fee — burdens not insurmountable, perhaps, for a reporter looking for a name or two; but not exactly easy for the general public.
A few months ago, thinking we might begin posting financial disclosure information, as we have already done for new quarterly lobbying reports, AxisPhilly requested digital copies of the forms. When we were told we couldn’t have them, we asked if we could bring our own scanner to the Records room and make the copies ourselves. Records Commissioner Joan Decker politely replied that the department has “a policy” against that.
What’s the policy, exactly? Reminded of this mystery by this week’s reporting deadline — and the mayor’s celebration of the anniversary of his own Executive Order on Open Data — we put the question again to Commissioner Decker, who referred us to administration spokesman Mark McDonald.
“As you correctly note, the City has recently celebrated the one year anniversary of the Mayor’s open data executive order,” McDonald replied by email. “During this time, the city drafted a plan, created a working group and hired a chief data officer. We have also begun to put online large data sets, about 46 at last count.”
There’s more coming, McDonald said, “including information from financial disclosure forms. The Administration is focused on transparency and public engagement in making government data available to the public.”
Indeed, financial disclosure information is listed as one of several data sets scheduled to be released this summer (the anticipated release deadline was recently bumped from June 30 to July 31).
And Shane Creamer, Executive Director of the city’s Board of Ethics, which enforces financial disclosure, says that the Board is “happy to work with the administration to identify any potential feasibility and logistical issues,” connected to publishing the data.
But none of that really explains why we can’t, in the meantime, just get digital copies of the forms.
Part of the answer, made clear in various conversations not for attribution, is that there’s simply reluctance, perhaps understandable, on the part of officials to make easily accessible what can be a great deal of personal information — not just for elected officials like Council members but for regular staffers and other lower-level employees as well.
The official answer, however, is less nuanced. Asked to clarify what the city’s release schedule has to do with the mysterious, as-yet unseen “policy” against scanning these documents ourselves, city spokesman McDonald replied with a single sentence.
“Our focus is getting data sets online,” he wrote, “as the previous comment notes.”