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Open the books

Transposition error makes it appear substitute teacher makes $216K

in Government spending/News/Education/Transparency
Transposition error makes it appear substitute teacher makes $216K
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By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

RIVERTON – In case you might’ve heard otherwise, please rest assured that a substitute teacher does not, in fact, hold the top-paying job in Fremont County School District 25 in Riverton. They’re not paying a custodian $120,000 a year, either.

But that certainly appeared to be the case if you were to visit the government spending accountability website OpenTheBooks.com Saturday morning. And it appears a transposing error is to blame.

Founded in 2011 and based out of a Chicago suburb, OpenTheBooks.com is a nonprofit dedicated to uncovering and disclosing the spending figures at every level of government, with an overall aim of providing the public accountability about where its money is spent. The nonprofit’s oversight reports on government spending have been featured by news outlets as diverse as C-SPAN, Good Morning AmericaFox News and The Wall Street Journal.

And according to FCSD 25 Personnel Manager Karen Wardner, the site does indeed show the correct figures for the employee wages paid in 2017, with Superintendent Terry L. Snyder topping the list at $212,685. But in the 2018 data, the top-earner listed is substitute teacher Terri L. Cole, with an annual wage of $216,894, with Snyder shown earning only $20,817 that same year.

“It’s definitely not accurate. I can assure you, we restrict the number of hours they (substitute teachers) work,” Wardner said in an interview Friday.

After viewing OpenTheBooks.com herself and observing the figures listed, Wardner said it appears the 2018 salary listing for Snyder was transposed with Cole’s name, possibly due to their similar first names and middle initial. 

“If you scroll down, it’s got her actual rate for 2017 at $6,665,” Wardner said.

The transposition appears to have thrown off much of the rest of OpenTheBooks’ 2018 salary list for the district. For example, Business Manager Lu Beecham – the district’s third-highest earner in 2017 at $120,000 – was switched out for a custodian in the 2018 list, so the custodian is shown making $120,450 while Beecham supposedly pulled down just $21,007.

Fortunately, Wardner said the error should be simple enough to fix once she’s able to determine whose names were transposed with whose. She said she planned to reach out to OpenTheBooks.com in the coming days to make sure the 2018 figures are updated to reflect reality. 

Symons: Groundwork laid to improve government transparency

in Column/Transparency
Wyoming government transparency
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By Gail Symons, member of the Transparency Working Group, special column to Cowboy State Daily

While it is easy to “want what I want when I want it,” the challenges of government transparency are much more complex than simply asking for data and receiving it immediately.

It was an early morning meeting the second week of the 2019 Wyoming Legislative Session.  The newly installed Governor Gordon and Auditor Racines brought to order the first meeting of the Transparency Working Group to a packed room in the Jonah Building.  On the phone was the CEO of OpenTheBooks, an organization that had brought suit against the previous Auditor for failure to produce five years of state spending data and vendor files.  A Wyoming based group, Equality State Taxpayers Association, joined in that suit. After being provided an opportunity to air their grievances and expectations, the CEO threatened to add Auditor Racines to the suit if the requested data was not produced in 30 days.

In September 2018, then candidates Governor Mark Gordon and Auditor Kristi Racines announced the Transparency Working Group to explore means to improve financial and operational transparency in Wyoming government.  The Working Group includes Sen Cale Case (R-Lander), Rep Tom Walters (R-Casper), Cheyenne attorney John Masters, Sheridan Press Publisher Kristen Czaban and myself, a civics wonk with 30 years’ experience in data-based process improvement.  Governor Gordon and Auditor Racines serve as co-chairs and are supported by policy advisor Renny MacKay.

Fast forward to the end of February and the close of the Wyoming Legislative Session.  The Auditor’s office had released the remaining spending records, refunded the $8,000 paid by the two groups and the suit had been dropped.  For the first month in office, the Auditor’s team had concentrated on completing the manual scrubbing of the records.  

During this same session, the Joint Corporations Committee had introduced SF0057 Public Records with short time frames for response and felony penalties.  After a committee meeting where it became clear that the impact on state agencies and their ability to comply had not been considered, an unusual working committee meeting was held. 

With input from advocacy groups, private citizens, state agencies and special districts, a substitute bill was crafted and subsequently passed. This removed the felony provisions, eased the time restrictions, required a public records person to be designated in each entity and created an Ombudsman position in the Governor’s Office.  The Ombudsman role is to serve as a mediator between requestors and government entities.

Fast forward again to mid-July.  The State Auditor has rolled out an online state checkbook developed in-house by the office’s IT individuals.  The checkbook can be found at www.WyOpen.gov.  This is static data that has filters and scrubbing applied to state financial data extracts to comply with privacy and other statutory protections.  The Auditor is encouraging use of the site and feedback to increase usability.

Also this summer, Interim Topic priority # 2 for the Joint Judiciary Committee has advanced.  That is a two-year study on public records and public meetings statutes to modernize in light of changes to law, technology and promote realistic transparency.  For 2019, the committee is reviewing the public records law to expand and improve on the work started with SF0057.

The Legislative Service Office has provided a summary of the current Wyoming Public Records Act including the wide range of exceptions to disclosure.  That report cabe be found online here.  To understand the financial and operational impact of records requests, a survey across all entities was conducted on the volume of requests, elapsed time to comply and costs in applied times.  The results are available here

The next Joint Interim Judiciary Committee meeting is scheduled at Casper College, Room EI 100 on August 15th and 16th 2019.

This past week, five candidates are being interviewed for the Ombudsman position by members of the Working Group and the Governor’s staff.  In addition to providing mediation, the individual will receive complaints, establish timelines for release of records and may waive fees charged by an entity.  Given the certainty that a new bill will be introduced by the Interim Judiciary and the uncertainty on exactly what are the exceptions to disclosure and how to apply them, the Ombudsman is expected to also provide policy and guidance.

On June 4th, 2019, Governor Gordon issued a letter to the state Elected Officials and Directors providing guidance on budget preparation for the 2021 -2022 Biennium.  In addition to expecting this to be a true biennial budget, meaning it will last for two years rather than be amended after one year, he emphasized his commitment to transparency with the requirement for having the budget be more readily understood by the public.  New this year is a State of the Agency covering all aspects of the operations and tie directly to the budget request. This letter, agency budget instructions and a budget request strawman can be found on the Budget Office website at https://ai.wyo.gov/divisions/budget.

There is significant truth to the saying, “if it was easy, it would already be done.”  Great strides have been made in reconciling perceptions of transparency (or lack thereof) with statutory, organizational, systemic and human realities.  In a very short period of time, groundwork has been laid to establish improved capabilities at all levels of state and local government with consistent processes and policies. 

The real success of these collaborative efforts will be tested in the upcoming 2020 legislative budget session.

Spending data provides window into state expenses, but lacks big picture

in Government spending/News
Wyoming’s checkbook contains a mountain of information about state agency spending, but it’s far from a full accounting of Wyoming’s budget
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s checkbook contains a mountain of information about state agency spending, but it’s far from a full accounting of Wyoming’s budget.

“There’s a lot in the checkbook, but there’s also a lot missing,” said Kevin Lewis, an Equality State Taxpayers Association (ESTA) researcher. “The auditor’s office only tracks the checks they write, and some agencies use their own internal accounting system.”

After a years-long legal battle between ESTA, American Transparency and the state, newly elected Wyoming State Auditor, Kristi Racines, released the checkbook shortly after taking office in January. The checkbook contains approximately 4.9 million line items of expenditures made by state agencies during the last six years, but it does not include several spending categories such as state employee salaries or victims’ benefit payments.

Additionally, Lewis said portions of the released information are missing identifying codes.

The coding system is used so the data can be broken down by agency and spending category, but some codes fall short of identifying anything more than the department that ordered the expenditure.

“You’ll frequently see (in the checkbook) Wyoming Department of Transportation only, or Attorney General only,” Lewis said. “In general, you’d like to not have that, because it makes it difficult to figure out where the money is being spent.”

Confidential payments

Releasing information to the public is a complex process, but it boils down to fulfilling information requests, Racines said.

“Payroll is different than writing a check to someone,” she said. “The auditor’s office doesn’t deal with salaries, it deals with paychecks.”

Paychecks can include confidential information about employees, so Racines said her office has to approach releasing paycheck data carefully as some of it might be covered under various confidentiality laws, both state and federal.

Regardless of the hurdles, she said the answer to why payroll information wasn’t in the checkbook is simple.

“It wasn’t in the request,” Racines explained.

If the information were to be requested, she said the office would release the information, but only after they reviewed state and federal statutes and consulted with the Wyoming Attorney General’s office about what portions of the paycheck could be released.

Other confidential categories include victim benefit payments, some law enforcement activities, subsidized adoption payments and benefit payment assistance.

“There’s a lot of categories that might seem obvious,” Racines said. “And some of the categories are not as black and white as they may seem. An expert witness payment may be confidential while a case is ongoing, but not later.”

Because the checkbook is a line-by-line expense report, the auditor said it did not include many payments protected by confidentiality laws. While the payments themselves are confidential, the amount an agency spends on a confidential category is not. 

“The public can request to see how much an agency spent on something like victim’s benefit payments,” Racines explained. “But because that wasn’t in the (checkbook) request, we didn’t include it.”

The auditor’s office handles most of the state’s accounting, but some agencies use their own accounting system.

“We use Wyoming Online Financial System, which is like a gigantic version of QuickBooks,” Racines said. “Some agencies, like the University of Wyoming, have an internal system, though.”

When an agency uses a different system, Racines said she can’t access its records, and therefore, her office couldn’t include its expenditures in the checkbook. In addition to the university, Wyoming Game and Fish and WYDOT expenses were largely absent from the released data as well as Wyoming Pipeline Authority and Wyoming Infrastructure Authority line items.

“The infrastructure authority and the pipeline authority are a little different,” Racines explained. “They’re authorities, not agencies, so my understanding is the state cuts them a check for their budget, because it is appropriated by legislature. Then (the authorities) cut out individual checks.”

Coding system

Wyoming’s agencies use about 6,000 codes to categorize how state money is spent, but the system is old and has not been regularly updated, Racines said.

“Our data is only as good as our codes are,” she explained. “We have a lot of codes that are unused, and some that could maybe be better described.”

Lewis said without better code descriptions, the data reviewers are left to guess at what the state spends money on.

“On one line item, maintenance might be spelled out, but on another it could be just MT, then in another it’s ‘Op & Maint,’” Lewis said. “Spelling and consistency problems aside, the chart of accounts often doesn’t include enough information about the item. We can see the governor’s office spent ‘X’ amount on farm equipment in 2017, but we don’t know why.”

Even with missing codes and jumbled descriptions, Lewis said releasing the checkbook was strong step toward increasing transparency in Wyoming government, but it’s just the start.

“Even though we finally got the checkbook, we only have a little bit of the picture,” Lewis said. “We have a long way to go before we figure out the rest of it.”

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