By Adam Andrzejewski
The City of Baltimore has two databases in which the public can search for public payments to vendors.
However, neither one has complete records for 2021 spending, and an open records request filed three months ago by Open The Books has yet to be filled.
In 2020, the public was able to download the City of Baltimore checkbook from the city’s website, seeing vendor name, date, payment amount, what fund it came from, what agency paid it, and a description of the products or services.
That checkbook contains vendor payments for only the first three quarters of 2021.
While a second database, the Baltimore City Open Checkbook, created on April 15, 2021, claims to have 2021 checkbook data, that data is also lacking, with a note at the top of the page stating that files are incomplete.
So our organization filed an open records request on Feb. 28, asking for the 2021 records, and for three months, the Baltimore City Department of Finance has given us the run-around, slow walking our request, saying they needed more time to fill it.
Now they’ve gone silent.
They are no longer acknowledging our emails seeking an update on the status of our request and haven’t responded to a request for comment for this story.
So we contacted the mayor’s office and the comptroller’s office for help accessing the records, to point out that they should have been made available to the public a long time ago.
We haven’t heard back from the mayor’s office but the day after we contacted them, the comptroller’s office rolled outa database of every contract the Board of Estimates approved since January 2021, whose invoices are eventually paid by the Department of Finance.
The Board of Estimates is made up of five voting members: the mayor, the president of the City Council, the comptroller, the city solicitor, and the director of public works. The Board of Estimates awards contracts and supervises all purchasing by the City.
So far, the new database looks useful and appears to be upholding the comptroller’s promise for transparency and accountability.
It provides the name of the person or organization, what type of payment it gets (loan, grant, contract), what date the payment(s) began and ended, total spending for that organization, what the service or good was, which city agencies are involved. It even includes information on when the Board of Estimates acted on that item, what agenda page and item number the transaction is under.
So far, the database has up-to-date records as recent as May 18, 2022.
While the new database looks like a win for transparency and accountability, the city still won’t give a complete look at its spending.
Why is the Board of Estimates able to show contracts it acted on one week ago but the Department of Finance can’t show invoices it paid 12 months ago?
At the very least, the Department of Finance should be open about its process, instead of continuing to kick the can down the road, saying it needs more time to find records.
If the Department of Finance, which pays the city’s bills, doesn’t already have the records for spending from 12-months ago, Baltimore’s finances are in more trouble than we thought.