Check being written
Philip Oehlerking

One question that drives our municipal checkbook project is: What is the cost of transparency? Because Missouri’s sunshine law allows cities to charge for the time it takes to fulfill requests, it is not uncommon that producing public records will come with a price tag attached. When we sent sunshine requests for expenditure records, cities had the discretion to either charge nothing for these records, or—like the City of Battlefield—quote a price of over $35,000.

One argument we have heard from skeptics of checkbook transparency is that small cities like Battlefield (population 5,590) cannot afford to provide spending records at a low cost. Certainly, different cities have various staffing levels and challenges, but responses like Battlefield's should raise concerns. And while we do not expect small cites to have the same resources as the City of Saint Louis, several cities provided us their expenditure records free or at very little cost, and some of those cities are smaller than Battlefield.

Consider the example of Winfield (population 1,404), which stands out not only because it shared its expenditure records free of charge, but also because of its commitment to transparency. When I spoke with the mayor, he said that while he loved our Municipal Checkbook database, his city could not afford to host its checkbook on its own website.

But after I told him we planned to put the city’s records in our database, he said that he would provide a link to our website so citizens could see how Winfield is spending its money. And if you check out Winfield’s website today, you'll see that link. He also said the city was in the process of updating its transparency portal on the city website—not bad for a city of fewer than 1,500 people.

Cities, no matter their size, should provide easy access to information about how they’re spending our money, and modern accounting software used by most cities allows for quick generation of accurate reports. In Winfield’s case, the city saw in the Checkbook Project a tool to increase its own transparency. I applaud its commitment to promoting a culture of municipal accountability and good governance.

About the Author

Philip Oehlerking
Research Assistant

Philip Oehlerking graduated from the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in political science. His research interests include transportation policy and government transparency.