Fla. officials urged to make budget website public
Open government, ethics advocacy groups urge Florida officials to make budget website public
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A pair of open government and ethics advocacy groups on Friday urged Gov. Rick Scott and Florida legislative leaders to keep and make public a now-secure and largely unused website that gives details about the state budget that was developed by a private contractor at taxpayer expense.
Senate President Don Gaetz later sent a memorandum to his members noting the data is already public information and that the company, which obtained a no-bid contract from his chamber under a prior administration, wants more money to make its easy-to-use website public.
The Niceville Republican wrote that he wants feedback from senators on whether to continue working with the contractor, Spider Data Services, or go in a different direction. He's asked two of his committee chairmen to work up a proposal for open bidding on a comparable "user-friendly, accurate, cost-effective, Web-based transparency tool" for the public as well as lawmakers.
The media-backed First Amendment Foundation and a recently formed group called Integrity Florida contend Spider's Transparency 2.0 website makes budget and contracting information easier to obtain and understand.
They said making it public could expose potential corruption and waste, saving millions of dollars in the process, which has happened in other states that have such systems.
Florida, though, will be wasting about $5 million already spent to develop the system if the no-bid contract is not renewed. It expires Dec. 31.
Integrity Florida executive director Dan Krassner said that's what may happen because Scott's office has declined to take Transparency 2.0 from the Senate although lawmakers passed a new law and appropriated $2.5 million for transferring the site and making it public.
"Right now a handful of the most powerful officials in Florida know where every penny of the public's money is going and the rest of Florida is in the dark," Krassner said during a conference call.
Access is restricted for internal use only under the contract's terms. It has not, though, been rolled out for use by rank-and-file lawmakers although development had been completed before the 2102 legislative session began in January.
First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen said she believes the website is a public record and subject to disclosure, but Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said the vendor, not the Senate, controls access to the website.
A Scott spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment.
The contract can be renewed for $1 million a year without public access. Gaetz wrote that he met Thursday with a Spider representative who was not immediately able to say how much more it would cost to make the website public. He asked the vendor to provide those cost figures.
The Spider representative also acknowledged that the site is updated monthly while an existing public website, Transparency Florida, is refreshed daily and includes fund transfers between agencies that aren't on the Spider site, Gaetz wrote.
Gaetz confirmed Scott declined to accept responsibility for overseeing the website because the contract was awarded without bidding. It was signed during the administration of former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Merritt Island Republican who was term-limited out of office this year. Gaetz wrote that he became aware of the contract just a few weeks before assuming the presidency last month.
"What's ironic is that the Transparency 2.0 website would be shining light on no-bid contracts and that kind of activity going forward," Petersen said.
The two advocacy groups were given a password for Transparency 2.0 after the offices of Gaetz and Scott asked them to take a look at it. In a report completed this week, they concluded it's far superior to existing state websites that provided the public with budget and contract information including two maintained by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.
Petersen said Atwater's sites have lots of information but not as much as Transparency 2.0 and they are difficult to use.
"Transparency 2.0 on the other hand connected all the dots for me and gave me some dots I wasn't even expecting," Petersen said.
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