Fostoria Review Times: Mandel pushes state to open its checkbook
By Joel Sensenig | Fostoria Review Times
Josh Mandel wants to make state government officials nervous — if they’ve got anything to be nervous about when it comes to spending taxpayer money, that is.
The state treasurer proposed a plan last year to place the state’s checkbook online, where all expenditures of Ohio’s elected politicians, offices and agencies could be accessed and searched by the public. House Bill 175 (known as the “Open Ohio” bill) was introduced in May 2013 by State Representative Mike Dovilla (R-Berea). In June of this summer, the House approved it by an 86-8 count, garnering support from both parties. It is now in the Ohio Senate, where it will be debated this fall.
“My vision is by putting the state’s checkbook online, I’d like to create an army of citizen auditors online, where citizens can be empowered to hold the politicians and bureaucrats accountable for government spending,” Mandel said Monday afternoon during a stop at the Review Times office. “I believe in the concept that sunlight is the greatest disinfectant to government waste. When you shine sunlight on government spending, it makes the politicians and bureaucrats think twice about wasting taxpayer money, or even worse, defrauding the citizens.
“We think this online checkbook will be a great tool for citizens as well as investigative journalists who are trying to smoke out waste and fraud,” he said.
The treasurer admits this is easier said than done. As he says, plenty of politicians would like nothing more than to see this legislation die a quiet death — without their name being attached to it.
“The main obstacle is a lot of bureaucrats who work in the bowels of state government who are trying to kill this legislation because they don’t want all this information online,” Mandel said. “I think a lot of them are acting in a cowardly fashion because they won’t publicly oppose the legislation but they are trying to kill it privately.”
As may be expected, citizens and newspapers have been an easier audience to please. The Ohio Newspaper Association has put its support behind the bill, Mandel mentioned.
“By citizens, it’s been very positive,” he said. “Across the political spectrum, people have been very supportive of this because I’m trying to empower the people to hold politicians and bureaucrats accountable.”
Mandel said his office has no plans to make its checkbook available online prior to the rest of the state, but rather as part of the state effort. He’d like to have the site up and running by the beginning of 2015. If the process takes as long as it did in the House, the beginning of 2016 will be more likely.
The treasurer’s office intends to pay for the online checkbook using existing budget resources and would not seek any additional funds to build or maintain the site, according to Seth Unger, communications director for the treasurer’s office.
While a cost estimate isn’t yet available, Mandel said it would be paid for through about $5 million in savings he’s achieved since taking office. A majority of the $5 million was saved by tightening office expenditures, letting go about 23 staff members, and ending a contract his office had with a company to water plants there, Mandel said.
“There are definitely some politicians behind the scenes trying to throw marbles under our feet and slow down the legislation,” Mandel said. “I’m going to stay vigilant and find a way to get this bill passed. People have a right to know how their tax money is being spent.”
Another challenge of the bill is simply presenting the mass amount of expenditures in a user-friendly manner.
“Context is very important. Right now all of this information is a matter of public record, but nearly impossible for citizens to access it and search it,” the state treasurer said. “What we’re trying to do is take millions of state expenditures that are very difficult to access by the public and put them in a format that’s accessible, searchable and digestable.”
Mandel wants the online checkbook to be comparison-friendly as well. Say you want to see how much five agencies are spending on travel expenses. If four agencies are spending $100 a night to stay at the Holiday Inn and the fifth is spending $500 a night to stay at the Ritz-Carlton, taxpayers will be able to hold them accountable for that.
Mandel mentioned another situation these records could prove useful.
“One of my pet peeves is I hate seeing public officials use a bunch of tax money to go to these conferences in Hawaii when they could have went to one in Cincinnati,” he said. “I believe by virtue of just having this information online, it will make the politicians and other public officials think twice before they waste money or defraud the citizens, because they’re not going to want to embarrass themselves.”
Mandel said “good, not great” versions of his online checkbook idea are already in place in states such as Texas, Idaho and Nebraska. While praising their efforts as trailblazers in the “open expenditures” movement, Mandel hopes to do even more.
“We’re going to learn from their successes and mistakes and try to make Ohio’s online checkbook the best in the country,” he said.
As phase two of the effort, Mandel wants to extend the online record-keeping to local municipalities.
“I’m going to start showing up at county commissioner, city council and school board meetings and asking them to do the same,” he said. Because local boards may not have the funds to do this, Mandel said his office would absorb the costs and post the municipalities on the treasurer website.
He offered a stern, confident promise to make sure this effort comes to fruition.
“I’m gonna say this again. I’m going to stay vigilant and I’m going to figure out a way to get this done,” he said. “And whether I’m taking on
Republican political bosses, Democrat political bosses or any other powerful political forces out there, I don’t care. I’m going to find a way to get this done, because it’s a good public service for the people of Ohio.”
Mandel, a Republican, faces a challenge from Rep. Connie Pillich, D-Cincinnati, in the November general election.
Mandel, 36, was elected in 2006 and 2008 to the Ohio House. While in the House, he served his second tour in Iraq as a Marine Corps reservist. He was elected state treasurer in 2010, defeating incumbent Democrat Kevin Boyce.
Pillich, 53, is a lawyer. She was an Air Force captain and served eight years of active duty in Desert Storm and Desert Shield.