Committee gathers, uploads town financial documents to public Dropbox account
by Alice Popovici
A group of Bladensburg residents, tired of what they say is a lack of transparency from elected officials, decided to take matters into their own hands and created a searchable website of town financial records and official documents.
The Dropbox site, launched by members of the Citizens Action Committee of Bladensburg in August, includes information on town meetings, town commissions and ordinances, as well as financial documents detailing purchases made by Mayor Walter James and council members with town-issued credit cards.
But members of the 25 to 30-member committee, who have been trying to get officials to pay attention since forming the group last spring, say they’ve yet to find a solution to their main source of frustration.
“Our problem is, we’re not allowed to ask questions about their spending before they vote on things,” said committee member Steve Weitz. “We live here. This is our town, so we want to have some input.”
Weitz said part of the problem is that elected officials go to many out-of-town conferences at the public’s expense, and residents don’t have any say in the matter. He said he would like to know, before a decision is made, how much a particular trip is going to cost.
But James, who said he has not had a chance to look at the documents on the site, maintained that officials have always been forthcoming with residents. James said he only attends three out-of-town events each year: the Maryland Municipal League conference in Ocean City, the CSTEM (Communications, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Challenge competition in Houston and the National League of Cities conference.
“We’ve always been open and transparent in the town of Bladensburg,” James said, adding that officials have made an effort to engage with residents by instituting town forums where residents can discuss their concerns. “It’s good to see people getting involved.”
Chris Melendez, chair of the action committee, said financial documents uploaded to the site include audit reports, financial disclosure statements for elected officials, credit card records for the mayor and council members as well as town budget materials. Melendez said she obtained many of the documents by filing a Maryland Public Information Act request with the town.
Jim Peck, director of research for the Maryland Municipal League, said he has not heard of another municipality in the state compiling an information resource such as this, but “that doesn’t mean it’s not out there.”
Melendez said there have been some positive changes as a result of the committee’s requests, as the town now posts meeting agendas prior to a Town Council meeting and posts meeting minutes in a timely manner afterwards.
“I think that the changes that have happened are positive,” Melendez said, but added that the group is still concerned about officials’ lack of transparency regarding their spending for out-of-town trips. “All we know is that we’re paying for it.” >>> Read more Gazette.
The residents of this town are doing the right thing. Elected officials in Prince George’s County starting with County Executive Baker have failed the public. In return, the whole Prince George’s county is melting down. We are asking more citizens to create accountability mechanism around the county similar to what these citizens are doing. This is the only way to make corrupt officials accountable. In ethics and governance, accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving.As an aspect of governance, it has been central to discussions related to problems in the public sector, nonprofit and private (corporate) worlds. In leadership roles,accountability is the acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies including the administration, governance, and implementation within the scope of the role or employment position and encompassing the obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences.
In governance, accountability has expanded beyond the basic definition of “being called to account for one’s actions”. It is frequently described as an account-giving relationship between individuals, e.g. “A is accountable to B when A is obliged to inform B about A’s (past or future) actions and decisions, to justify them, and to suffer punishment in the case of eventual misconduct”. Accountability cannot exist without proper accounting practices; in other words, an absence of accounting means an absence of accountability.