California Cities Are Nation’s Best & Worst for Spending Transparency

New CALPIRG Report Compares California Cities to Other Major Cities across America

CALPIRG Education Fund

San Francisco, CA – A new report released today by CALPIRG examined California’s progress toward comprehensive, one-stop, one-click city budget accountability and accessibility. San Francisco received the highest grade of “A-” for spending transparency, while Sacramento received a failing grade of “F” for spending transparency, according to the new report. Of the other California cites ranked for spending transparency by the report Riverside received a grade of “D-”, Los Angeles received a grade of “C-”, and San Diego received a grade of “C-”.

“Our report lists San Francisco as one of three “Leading” cities with a score a 90 or above.  San Francisco’s current transparency website provides many useful tools for city residents to track spending.” said Garo Manjikian, Advocate for CALPIRG.

The report, “Transparency in City Spending: Rating the Availability of Online Government Data in America’s Largest Cities,” reviews and grades the nation’s thirty largest cities on how effectively they allow the public to track budgets, contracting, subsidies, grants and requests for quality-of-life services.

San Francisco’s grade of “A-” reflects features such as the city’s provision of searchable and downloadable checkbook-level spending information, which gives citizens the ability to see how and where there money is being spent.  Additionally, the city has a central transparency website and a service request center that allows residents to notify city officials about quality-of-life issues that need fixing.  However, San Francisco still has room for improvement; for example, the city should list the benefits that specific companies receive from the city’s tax credits, exemptions, abatements and other tax subsidies.

“In San Francisco, we are committed to creating a system of transparency and open government that promotes accountability and allows us to best serve the people of our City,” said Mayor Edwin M. Lee.  “When residents understand how their tax dollars are spent, they can better hold the City accountable for results and help us improve the way we provide city services.  That’s why I’m focused on creative ways to continue to improve the transparency of the City’s budget.”

“San Francisco appreciates the recognition of our longstanding efforts to make our financial data available and understandable to our residents,” said Board of Supervisors President David Chiu. “We need to do even more to become the most financially transparent city in the nation.”

Sacramento’s failing grade of “F” reflects that it provides basic budget documents online but lacks checkbook-level city spending information.  There is plenty of room for improvement.  For example, Sacramento should provide checkbook-level spending data that is searchable by city department, keyword, and vendor and is downloadable for data analysis.  The city should also post historical expenditure data from previous fiscal years and provide tax subsidy information that lists the benefits specific companies receive from the city’s tax credits, exemptions, abatements and other tax subsidies.  The city should also develop of a one-stop transparency website to centralize city spending information and make it easier for citizens to access such information.

The report makes a series of recommendations for cities to follow in order to achieve spending transparency, including:

  • Cities should provide online databases of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail.
  • Checkbook-level data should be searchable and downloadable.
  • Cities should provide web visitors with copies of contracts between vendors and the city.
  • Cities should disclose the tax subsidies awarded to individual companies and recipients.
  • Cities should maintain a central transparency portal for all city spending tools and documents.
  • Cities should allow residents to view service requests submitted by other residents and the city’s responses to those requests.

“City spending has a profound impact on residents’ lives through basic government functions such as policing, sanitation and public health.  Spending transparency can help residents of San Francisco hold their elected leaders accountable and ensure that tax dollars are well spent,” Manjikian.

The new study extends CALPIRG’s annual reporting on state government transparency, which since 2010 has compared San Francisco’s spending transparency to the other 49 states: [see 2012 Following the Money report]

The “Transparency in City Spending” report can be downloaded here.


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CALPIRG, the CALIFORNIA Public Interest Research Group, stands up to powerful special interests on behalf of the public, working to win concrete results for our health and our well-being.