Less than 10 percent of California cities make campaign finance and candidate filings available online. Now the standard for state and federal government, this is an issue that the Transparency Portal is increasingly focused on, and has profiled California-based firms such as Netfile that provide cost-effective vehicles for disclosure at the local level. Ultimately, though resources are a consideration, California residents deserve ready access to information on who is influencing their local elections.
A report out of Orange County, produced last month by blogger Chris Emami, has started on that just that path.
Since early 2012, Emami and his blog at OCPolitical.com has been providing a range of coverage of local government issues in Orange County, from the always humming party politics of the County to live blogging Supervisor’s interviews of candidates for their vacant County Clerk position. Specializing in research of local issues, Emami’s report on campaign finance in Anaheim is offered as a first step towards a countywide look at local campaigns, and the Transparency Portal sat down with Chris to discuss this project and other ways in which he is shining a light on activities in OC.
Portal: The campaign finance report, and database you hope to produce, is unique in the world of local government transparency. In the spirit of our interview for the Transparency Portal, can you give us your definition of “Transparency”?
Emami: Transparency, in my view, is something that should be done in order to provide all people with a clear view of what is going on within various local government agencies. Often one sees situations in which agencies appear to make it extremely difficult to obtain information; with the technology that is available to us today this is unacceptable.
Portal:Your report focused on five candidates (who raised more than $1,000) for Anaheim City Council in November 2012. Any surprises?
Emami: Nothing was all that surprising to me. I do think that in general, people expected a larger percentage of Jordan Brandman’s campaign chart to have come from unions since he was the only Democrat with a legitimate chance to win during the campaign.
Portal: This project certainly required meticulous work and a lot of hours sorting through hard-copy campaign filings. What inspired you?
Emami: I was inspired by the fact that this is something that should be online and available to anybody who cares about local government. Part of the reason why nobody has done this in the past is likely the cost. This is a project that will take a fairly substantial amount of money to complete, approximately $32,000 to be exact. My firm, Custom Campaigns, has already contributed $6,000 to the project. We are currently trying to put together enough donors to fund the rest of the research.
Portal: Your initial report focused on the City of Anaheim, the County’s largest city. You have also explored producing similar reports for other Orange County cities. Can you speak to the scope of that project, and whether extending this work into smaller cities presents any additional challenges?
Emami: Anaheim was difficult due to the sheer number of donors, which is going to be the case with other cities such as Irvine, Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, etc. The scope of the project in the first round is to do the same exact report that we did in Anaheim for every City, School Board, and Special District election in Orange County. The problem with most of these smaller cities is that they lack either the ability or willingness to put campaign finance data online. Anaheim is one of the most transparent cities that I have researched over the past six years.
Portal: How important is it visualize this data? Does presenting the info in web-friendly charts and graphs increase the response to this reporting?
Emami: I would argue that there would be no response without having graphics to go along with the data. The data is great to have on paper because it shows who donated and how much each candidate got from different groups (Unions, Trade Associations, Businesses, Individuals, and Political Entities). Having charts to show people what the data represents though is crucial because it puts things into perspective. A candidate who raised $500,000 might have taken a lower percentage of special interest money than a candidate who raised $75,000, regardless the total aggregate dollar figure for each.
Portal: You’ve been researching issues in local government for some time, and have an expertise in the area. How would you characterize the accessibility of this campaign finance information to the average resident?
Emami: It’s terrible, just thinking off the top of my head only one governmental agency in Orange County has this information online (City of Anaheim). My hope is to work with different cities in order to help them get this data online.
The one bright spot in Orange County is the office of Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley, who is in my opinion light years ahead of all other Registrar of Voters and also the Secretary of State. He has already started to move all campaign finance reports online along with many other services.
Portal: Are there changes you feel can/should be made to make this information more accessible?
Emami: Anaheim passed a transparency ordinance that required all major documents and forms to be placed online and has made huge strides because of it. It is amazing the amount of data that is available on the City of Anaheim’s website as opposed to websites of other agencies in Orange County.
Portal: What’s next?
Emami: Now I need to start fundraising in order to raise the $26,000 needed to be able to complete this project. Any donors reading this are more than welcome to contact me at email@example.com which is my personal e-mail address.