Wake lets anyone be a watchdog

Residents can monitor county expenses on a new Web site and look for waste.

Staff WriterJuly 8, 2009 

  • Go to www.wakegov.com/budget/watch/.

    Click on "Previous Year Financial Transaction" (Fiscal year 2010 data won't start accruing until the end of the month).

    Select from the listed county departments the one you want to know more about.

    You will be prompted to select from other available categories.

    If you see spending you want to know more about, click the link for "Ask a question about this information" and fill out an online form.

    A member of the county's budget and finance staff will respond to your inquiry.

    Source: Wake County and The N&O

— Wake County introduced new Internet site this week that gives the public easy access to review government spending, from the amounts charged for out-of-town meals to the county manager's postage.

The new interactive site WATCH, for Wake Accountability Tax Check, is being billed as one of only a few of its kind in the nation. The effort was initiated last year after revelations about excessive travel expenses by employees in the county's Solid Waste department; two managers lost their jobs afterward.

"Citizens of Wake County are hungry for transparency," Commissioner Joe Bryan said. "Sometimes out of a crisis, there can be opportunity."

Information on county spending is public under state law, but getting that information has previously required making a written request for records. A response can take days or even weeks to arrive.

Now, anyone with Internet access and curiosity can, in a few mouse clicks, learn more about how much the county spends on gasoline for its motor vehicle fleet or how much is distributed each month in welfare checks.

The travel bills of Wake commissioners are also listed, though information about individual trips is not available online. Board Vice Chairman Lindy Brown spent the most, at $7,670.86, mostly on travel to conferences. Compare that to Commissioner Paul Coble, who prides himself on being a tightwad. He spent $30.

Wake officials are inviting the county's citizens to serve as an army of watchdogs, reviewing the spending data and preventing waste and abuse.

Users who think they've found questionable charges can fill out an online form to alert county finance staff and request more information. A response or clarification should be sent back within five business days, said Johnna Rogers, the deputy county manager who coordinated the project.

New spending data will be posted about two weeks after the close of each month's books.

"This is a way the public can help us identify the misuse of money," Commissioner Tony Gurley said.

Fears of going too far

The initiative is not being universally hailed as a step forward.

Commissioner Stan Norwalk, who was elected to the board in November, cast the lone vote at a meeting Monday against activating the new site. He said county employees are likely to be bombarded with so many requests for information from groups such as the fiscally conservative Wake Taxpayers Association that they will spend too much time dealing with frivolous inquiries.

"I can't begin to imagine what this is going to cost," said Norwalk, a Democrat. "This all started because someone misspent $100,000. Now we're going to spend millions and millions on this. It blows my mind."

Rogers said the site uses electronic data that the county's budget and finance office already collects. Posting the information on the county's Internet site adds no additional cost to the process, she said. Employees are to track the number of inquiries they receive and the time it takes to find the information and respond.

Todd McGee, communications director for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, said he was unaware of any other county in the state that had a similar Web site.

"It certainly ramps up the accountability aspect," McGee said as he looked at the site Tuesday. "I could see other counties being interested in doing something like this."

The Wake site does not include some payee information, such as the names of people receiving public assistance or confidential informants on the payroll at the sheriff's office. The salaries of individual county employees are not listed, though that information is public under state law.

However, the spending information offered on the Web site does provide unprecedented detail, such as the $708.23 spent by County Manager David Cooke on hotel rooms in the last year.

Cooke said Tuesday that he welcomes the scrutiny. The hotel bills were from two in-state conferences he attended.

"It's always been public information," the county manager said. "All that's different now is that it's easier to find. Hopefully people will use it."

michael.biesecker@ newsobserver.com or 919-829-4698

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