WEEKEND EDITION

Unclouding the Transparency Ratings of New York and New Jersey

| March 22, 2012 4:00 AM video

New York and New Jersey have made strides in their online data transparency, but two new reports suggest both state governments have room for major improvement in different areas. MetroFocus/Kevon Greene

Two new reports on state government corruption and digital transparency give New York and New Jersey very different scores.

The Center for Public Integrity nearly flunked New York with a “D” and put New Jersey at the top of the class with a “B+”. Meanwhile, U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) gave New York a pat on the back with a “B” rating, and let New Jersey squeak by with a “C+.”  Huh?  What really counts as transparent?

The report released on Monday by the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative watchdog created by Public Radio International and Global Integrity, details which state governments are most susceptible to corruption. New York came in 36th place, and with a “D” letter grade, it was one of the least accountable states.

To nearly everyone’s surprise, New Jersey came in first place — with a commendable, but not perfect “B +” — even though the state’s government has seen a slew of high-profile state corruption cases in recent years. Remember in 2009, when rabbis, assemblymen and mayors were arrested for taking bribes from an FBI informant posing as a crooked developer? Or that over the past decade, 150 state and local officials have pleaded guilty or been convicted on federal corruption charges?  What gives? Did some Jersey good fellas threaten to break the Center for Public Integrity’s legs?

Not that we know of, but the report didn’t track actual incidents of criminal corruption or local government data. Instead, it based its rankings on “data-driven assessment on transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms.”

WATCH THE VIDEO FOR A TRANSPARENCY TOUR OF GOVERNMENT WEBSITES:

MetroFocus web editor John Farley shows what data is really available on New York and New Jersey’s government websites.

Making the Center for Public Integrity’s findings a little less clear is another report on online state government transparency, created just last week by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. The U.S.PIRG’s lens looks much more favorably upon New York, which received a “B” rating, and casts a more critical eye on New Jersey, which received a “C+.”

Explaining the Corruption Report

Taking a toll on New York’s corruption ranking by the Center for Public Integrity were some of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent decisions. Specifically, his appointment of  close political connections to the new state ethics committee and his choice to push through a non-independent redistricting plan in exchange for pension reforms .

But transparency did play a major roll in the rankings, and if you compare the format of, and amount of information made available, on New York and New Jersey’s state government websites, it’s easy to see why.

In 2009, Gov. Chris Christie signed the Open Public Records Act, requiring all state records to be housed under a new website, Your Money N.J. The website includes information such as the payroll of all employees, agency data, gubernatorial mandates, property taxes, revenue and more in an easily digestible format. New York State’s website is a little different. Payroll isn’t available at all, although the think tank Manhattan Institute has made that information available online at their See Through NY website, though they had to file Freedom of Information Law requests to get it. Financial information is available at the State Comptroller’s website, Open Book New York. But the NY.gov website links out to all state agencies, and the data varies widely in terms of usefulness and what’s even available.

A Different Perspective in the PIRG Findings

Not surprisingly, U.S. PIRG took different variables into consideration. For one, they only looked at the financial transparency websites — Your Money N.J. and Open Book New York. Additionally, states that included all of their financial data for county and city governments on the same website were scored better than those that didn’t. The Comptroller’s Open Book New York website does. Some of New Jersey’s local governments barely have any online presence. However, a new bill in the New Jersey legislature would require local governments to maintain websites with budgets and meeting schedules. And after all, Christie, a former federal prosecutor, attributes much of the state’s corruption problems (“I work in sanitation,” said Tony Soprano) to local government agencies.

Locals Get Left Out

Neither report took into account the transparency of non-fiscal local data, and it should be noted that New York City has made great strides toward that end. The NYC.gov site has been updated. On March 7, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a law that requires all city agencies to release their data on the city’s open data website by 2018. Bloomberg has made data transparency a key part of his mayoral career since he launched the 311 website in 2003.

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