I guess it hadn’t occurred to me that there were any class of public offices left for which campaign finance reports were not available online, but apparently there are.
Taxpayers can find out with the click of a mouse who has donated to the campaigns of Houston City Council members, the mayor, Harris County officials and state officers.
Getting the same data on school trustees and candidates is not so easy.
Unlike the city, county and state, the Houston area’s 10 largest school districts and many smaller ones do not post campaign finance reports on their Web sites.
Instead, taxpayers generally must trek to district headquarters during business hours to view paper copies of the reports, which detail the money that school board candidates raised and spent.
In interviews this week, several trustees said they had not thought about posting their campaign reports online.
Sonal Bhuchar, president of the Fort Bend school board, said she does not see the need for online reports because anyone can request paper copies.
“I think it’s best that if someone’s interested, an open-records request can be made,” she said. “I don’t think it necessarily has to be on the district Web site.”
Katy board president Eric Duhon said the issue of going digital boils down to cost.
“Someone must prepare the data, catalog the data, present it in an Internet form, and we must maintain that data,” he said. “With that said, I’m still not opposed to the concept of making public data easier accessed. The decision is, ‘What is the best use of public money at this time?’ ”
For copies of paper documents, districts can charge 10 cents a page.
Board presidents for Houston, Cypress-Fairbanks and Aldine school districts said they would not have a problem posting the campaign reports online but said the decision rests with the full board.
“It’s already an open record,” said Cy-Fair board president Don Ryan.
HISD board president Harvin Moore said he would raise the idea at the next board meeting.
“I think it’s something that the board can consider and we can act on right away,” he said. “It seems like a good idea to me.”
HISD trustee Carol Mims Galloway, who previously served on City Council, said she is not opposed to online reports but noted that trustees are unique politicians because they do not get salaries.
“If the body wants to do this, I don’t have any problems with it,” she said. “But we are different than other elected officials. We’re in another category because we are volunteers.”
Sorry, but every one of these excuses – and that’s what they are – for not making campaign finance reports available online is lame. Requiring an open-records request for a paper copy is a significant burden to anyone who might be interested in this information. It won’t cost that much, and if it came down to it there could be some funding allocated by the Lege for this purpose. And the fact that trustees are unpaid is irrelevant. It’s the donor, not the recipient, that really matters here. Voters have a right to know if people and firms that do business with the school districts are funding the trustees’ campaigns. This should not be contentious. I don’t know if it will take legislative action to make this happen, but if so I’ll say up front that I will support such a bill. This is the 21st century. Let’s act like we’re living in it.