Local governments have financial disclosure laws for their elected officials, in the same way that the state and federal governments do. However, these requirements are largely self-monitored and, as a result, vary widely from city to city.
We’ve created a comprehensive cheatsheet to outline disclosure requirements and resources for access in the 20 most populous cities in the United States.
It is estimated that 82% of the U.S. population reside in major metropolitan areas, so the information provided in these financial disclosures directly impacts constituents’ understanding of local government. The table includes specific requirements and policies by city, links to sample disclosure reports, databases to search for these reports, and other relevant information.
In compiling this report, we came to three key observations:
#1: Disclosures can be difficult to access.
While financial disclosures are supposed to be public information, they are often hard to find and difficult to use. Accessibility issues remain a common theme among these cities; navigating government websites and actually obtaining these forms can be challenging and time consuming. Interpreting the forms themselves can be moreso.
Many city commission websites, in fact, do not make clear where public disclosures can be found, and around a third of these twenty cities require a manual request with unclear turnaround times. Different municipalities also have varying names for the reports, making them difficult to search for if you aren’t aware of the official name used.
Moreover, many of the cities require that anybody requesting this “public information” make an identifying record of that request. This makes it less likely that everyday citizens will feel comfortable requesting this ostensibly “public information”. If nothing else, these barriers to access seem to violate the spirit of financial disclosure laws in the first place.
#2: Data specificity varies widely.
Beyond accessibility issues, the depth of data provided among cities is quite inconsistent. A few cities do not require officials to specify any actual values for their investment, and many others only require disclosure within wide wide brackets. For example, the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission financial disclosure form only has four large brackets for investments: $2,000 - $10,000, $10,000 - $100,000, $100,000 - $1,000,000, and over $1,000,000. The City of Austin has no specific bracket for any amount over $100,000.
#3: Almost all data is self-reported with no accountability.
With these ethics codes, commissions, and laws in place, our local governments are supposed to keep officials financially accountable and free from conflicts of interest. However, when it comes to the consequences to not filing reports, many cities have minimal fines in place for disclosure violations; others outline vague and inconsequential disciplinary action, and still others have had major local officials miss several years of reporting, with no known repercussions to public knowledge.
Why This Matters
These issues of data accessibility, specificity, and accountability are important because these disclosures are our strongest tool for identifying financial conflicts of interest in our elected leaders. It’s how we ensure that the people running for office have something other than their own financial goals in mind. In an ideal world, they are running with our interests in mind. We may not live in that ideal world, but our leaders’ disclosures still need to be a better tool for political transparency than what we’re getting.
Lead photo credit: Tierney - stock.adobe.com