Editorial: The ‘open checkbook’ way brings transparency to Northampton, Amherst

Friday, April 18, 2014
The recent addition of Open Checkbook to Amherst and Northampton municipal websites is a big win for government transparency. Open Checkbook databases provide anyone with an Internet connection the ability to see how governments are spending tax dollars — down to the penny.

Sorry, but it doesn’t mean you can write yourself a check.

By reviewing data organized by municipal departments and spending categories, it is possible to learn what vendors cities and towns are using, how much each individual check to a vendor is worth and what the money purchased.

So, for example, it’s now easy to find out that in March, some of the largest checks Amherst wrote were for insurance. Encharter Insurance, LLC, of Amherst, received $29,765 to insure the town’s vehicles, $24,534 for the buildings and $15,561 for public liability.

And last month, Northampton paid AMP Electrical Inc. of Springfield $53,930.84 for wastewater treatment and maintenance site improvements.

Most of the entries in the extensive databases are small transactions. Wading through the hundreds of exchanges every month can make your eyes cross, but the information is simple to access and that’s what counts.

Open checkbooks have been popping up on websites in Massachusetts since the state launched its own version in 2011.

The state’s site allows users to search the database by vendor, an option we find incredibly useful — which Northampton and Amherst do not yet offer.

It would take some data mining to learn which company is the top vendor for Northampton or Amherst, but on the state website it’s obvious.

After scrolling through the public, quasi-public and health insurance vendors, the organization getting most of the state’s tax dollars in fiscal year 2014 has been Walsh-McCourt JV1. The company has been paid $82.9 million so far this fiscal year for construction projects for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

In addition to a vendor search option, a database for public employee salaries would be a benefit to people interested in keeping an eye on government spending.

To peek inside Northampton’s checkbook, visit http://ma-northampton.civicplus.com/1430/Open-Checkbook. For Amherst, visit http://amherstma.gov/index.aspx?NID=1811.

Or simply search for “opencheck” for these communities.

We applaud the decisions of Amherst and Northampton officials to voluntarily open up their registers and keep the community informed. Transparency is important for those of us checking up on government, but being open about spending also feeds a wider sense of trust.

That’s something every government needs to lead people and keep operations running smoothly.