In a democracy, taxpayers should always be able to follow the money. That's particularly true when it comes to how local government decides which private groups get public dollars. For the second time in recent months, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is promising to upend the status quo at City Hall and demand more transparency in money matters. That's a good thing.
For years in St. Petersburg, the process for tapping into a relatively modest pot of public money for community events and groups has been opaque. Why or how private entities — from museums to youth employment programs — received a share of $1.5 million for their priorities has never been quite clear. The process was so opaque that apparently commitments weren't even communicated appropriately sometimes. That became clear earlier this year when Kriseman faced an unexpected $25,000 bill for a commitment to the Blue Ocean Film Festival that former Mayor Bill Foster had approved.
Contrast that with the far more elaborate process the city has long had for granting private groups permission to use public spaces for events such as parades or festivals. As part of that open, public process, the participants have to assure the city that security and cleanup are taken care of, and sometimes that evolves into in-kind contributions from the city in the form of police officers or sanitation crews. Interested members of the public have a way to track those decisions, and in-kind taxpayer contributions.
But no such process exists for cash contributions, yet. Kriseman anticipates going forward that groups would have to fill out a standard grant application that would be available for public viewing. He and his staff would act on requests for under $100,000; larger requests would go before the City Council. That will give local groups a chance to more fairly compete for limited dollars and the public better ways to assess if elected officials are being responsible stewards of public money.
Earlier this year, Kriseman halted another dubious funding practice at City Hall, where unspent dollars lingered indefinitely in construction accounts long after a project was complete — only to be tapped when leaders wanted to pay for something not in the formal budget. Such shell games prevent the public and other elected officials from seeing a complete picture of the city's resources. Kriseman has the right instincts: How the public's money is spent always should be public.