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VOL. 124 | NO. 124 | Friday, June 26, 2009

Election Commission Pushes to Ease Public Access

By Andy Meek

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A Memphis news organization last month requested financial disclosures from local elected officials including city and county mayors and members of the Memphis City Council. The price to obtain those records: more than $400.

First-term Shelby County Election Commissioner Brian Stephens recounts that story with dismay. And it’s why he’s been pushing to make public access of the financials no longer dependent on a trek Downtown to the commission to pay 25 cents per printed page. If that comes to pass, the process soon may be only a few keyboard clicks away.

Public knowledge

Among other things, that presumably would end one of the more well-known quirks of standing before the glass at the commission’s office counter to ask for the reports elected officials are required to regularly file. Anyone who buys copies of them has to identify him- or herself on a form, which lets the candidates or elected officials know who’s taking a look at them.

Brian Stephens

“It’s an outright shame that people who want this can’t go get it really easy,” said Stephens, who’s a few months into his term as a member of the majority Republican commission. “Basically, candidates and elected officials have got to file disclosure forms on who they got money from and how they spent it.

“They’ve always been housed down at the Election Commission, and if you want one you’ve got to go down there and they charge you per copy.”

The body has three Republicans and two Democrats and is chaired by former Shelby County Republican Party chairman Bill Giannini. Stephens said he believes the push to put political financials on the Internet would exist even if the commission’s makeup was reversed.

Private citizens such as Joe Saino, who long have navigated the maze of rules associated with the financial disclosures, welcome the initiative. But his optimism is muted.

Saino said he suspects local officials who want to keep some or all of the existing status quo may try to put the brakes on the effort by getting state lawmakers to step in.

Saino, who has spent hundreds of dollars out of his own pocket pursuing open records requests and at times filing lawsuits to force various local agencies to open their files, also hopes the commission doesn’t ultimately settle for basic Internet disclosure.

“Whatever they do needs to be in a searchable and sortable format,” he said.

In other words, if the data were presented in Microsoft Excel files on the commission’s Web site, for example, users could then search within the files for, say, all contributions to candidates from a certain businessman. Saino said that capability wouldn’t exist if the commission presented the files in a different format, such as a PDF file.

“Brian is moving forward on what needs to be done,” Saino said. “He’s trying to get a feel for what the staff can do. But having new reports come in in electronic format is something that could easily be done.”

Online ease

The push may signal even more sweeping change to come. Also potentially in the crosshairs of commissioners is the body’s Web site, www.shelbyvote.com, which Stephens said could be made more user-friendly.

He once did some research on the site by typing in an address and found it doesn’t reveal the exact precinct location a voter may want to know.

“We’re working on ways to make the Web site better and have more information on it to help the voters out,” Stephens said.

The general idea is for the commission to proceed along a dual track in making the financial disclosures available on the Internet. Once the group got a feel from staffers about what would be involved in digitizing the records, movement then could begin on posting to the Internet new disclosures as the commission receives them.

At the same time, an archiving process could unfold whereby the commission bit by bit goes through old records and puts those online as well.

“The good news is all the election commissioners, Republicans and Democrats alike, seem to be on board with this,” Stephens said. “The thing about this is it takes time for people to go Downtown to look at these things. If this can free up the staff’s time for other things also – this is just a great time saver for everyone involved.

“We’re just trying to make it easier for people to see what their government is doing.”

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