'Transparency' Losing Ground In Tallahassee

Jan 18, 2013

TALLAHASSEE -- Senators looking into the state's efforts to make budget information available online are expressing skepticism about Transparency 2.0, a site developed under a $5.5 million no-bid contract that is nonetheless endorsed by some ethics advocates.

The hesitance by members of the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee, which surfaced at a Thursday meeting, raises questions about whether the project has any prospects for revival.

SKITTISH: Sen. Alan Hayes doesn't want his 'itty bitty' staff memos disclosed. The Transparency 2.0 web site is in trouble.
Credit Florida Senate

The state sunk millions into the site, developed by Spider Data Services, before skittish state officials began distancing themselves from it. The contract with the company technically expired Dec. 31.

Officials balked in part because, they said, Spider Data said it would cost another $1 million a year to maintain the website with 600 licenses for legislators and staff members, with more funding needed if the system is taken public. Senators at Thursday's meeting said public availability was critical.

"We're not going to be greatly enhancing the opportunity for Floridians to visit," said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, who chairs the funding committee that will also examine the site. "It sounds to me like this is gross misuse of public funds."

Hays also said he was uncomfortable with some of the information that was available on the site, which provides working papers and other documents used in the preparation of the budget.

"Candidly, I'm not in favor of disclosing all the itty-bitty memos that go back and forth between myself and various staff members or other members of the Legislature," Hays said. "I'm sorry. If the public doesn't have any greater faith and confidence in my judgment than that, then they don't need to re-elect me."

The meetings were triggered by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who late last year told Hays and Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Chairman Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, to look into whether another system could match the strengths of Transparency 2.0. Supporters of the system say it is the most user-friendly of several sites that track the budget and state spending.

"I think it needs to be a combination of the right product and the right business arrangement," Ring said.

In a statement after the hearing, the company said the plan was always to eventually take the site public.

"Spider Data considers the system it designed for the Senate to be an extraordinarily cost-effective system for the Legislature for the benefit of the people of Florida because real-time oversight can now be accomplished with simple web searches for information using one system," the statement said. "Without this system, searches for the same information require users to search four different computer systems to find all of the state's financial information and spending records."

The contract has come under scrutiny not only for its cost, but also for its origins. The questions spring in part from the controversial tenure of Steve MacNamara, a former chief of staff to Gov. Rick Scott and, before that, chief of staff to former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. MacNamara resigned from Scott's office last May over questions about his role in administration shakeups and in some state contracting, including the Transparency 2.0 deal.

Despite that, Transparency 2.0 has drawn praise from some watchdog groups. Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, told senators that despite concerns over the process for building the site, "the product is powerful. It's much more user friendly than any of the sites that are available to the public today."

Others are less impressed. Joel Chandler, the editor of a blog called "Florida Open Government Watch," said he was not impressed when Gaetz's office helped him access Transparency 2.0. For example, he said, only summaries of state contracts are available instead of the full contract.

"There's a lot of value there," Chandler said. "But, frankly, the taxpayers of the state of Florida were ripped off."

Brandon Larrabee reports for The News Service of Florida.