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Reporting Error

No one can account for county's accountability measure

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Perhaps the most important -- and the most popular -- piece of Bill Peduto's campaign-finance reform is the requirement that finance reports be posted online, where they'll be easy to find.

But the requirement shouldn't be necessary. By law, every Allegheny County politician should already have that information online. None of them do, because county government has been ignoring a law it passed more than four years ago.

In August 2003, Allegheny County Council passed an ordinance requiring that campaign-finance reports for every local office-seeker be posted online. Such reports are public record, the legislation noted, but the methods for viewing them "are not always readily known ... and may be time-consuming and tedious." (As it stands, voters must pore over paper copies of the reports at the County Office Building, Downtown.)

The measure, signed by then-county executive Jim Roddey, set numerous deadlines for creating an online reporting system. By January 2005, candidates were supposed to be able to file finance reports electronically, rather than on paper. By January 2007, the county was supposed to be posting those reports within 72 hours of filing, and the database was supposed to be fully searchable.

None of these deadlines has been met, or even acted upon.

"I wouldn't say nothing has been done," says Mark Wolosik, who heads the county's Department of Elections. "I would say not much has been done."

"We pass the bill, pat ourselves on the back for good government, and then things move along to something else," says Rich Fitzgerald, a Squirrel Hill Democrat who served on county council back in 2003 and is council's president today. "I don't think it's intentional. One person complaining probably would have gotten it done."

Roddey was defeated in a re-election bid shortly after signing the law, and Fitzgerald surmises that the measure got lost in the shuffle once Democrat Dan Onorato took office. And although Onorato spokesperson Kevin Evanto says Onorato will "have an announcement soon regarding easier access to campaign-finance information," he offered few details by press time.

Wolosik says the measure was doomed almost from the outset. Council passed the measure, he says, but no one provided funding.

The Elections Department has only two full-time staffers handling finance reports. The county, meanwhile, has 130 municipalities and dozens of school districts, each of which can field numerous candidates. "There are times we've had 5,000 candidates" running countywide, Wolosik says (though that number includes races that don't report financial information to the county).

"You'd have to have somebody copy or scan the reports, and if you're going to have a searchable database, [the data] has to be converted," says Wolosik. "Somebody would have to make sure it was entered correctly, and all that would have to be done fast."

Philadelphia already has an electronic system up and running, despite passing a campaign-finance disclosure two years after Allegheny County. But as Wolosik says, "They don't have 130 municipalities." Philadelphia has a unified city/county government; only about 200 candidates file reports in the average election cycle, says J. Shane Creamer Jr., the executive director of Philadelphia's ethics board.

But citing Allegheny County's fractured government as an excuse "feels like crap to me," says Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, a Philly watchdog group. "If you were in Sullivan County -- where there are more bears than people and some finance reports are done by hand -- they might have a point. But I've gotta believe in Allegheny, all these reports are done on computer."

If only. City Paper can attest to the fact that many candidates -- even in Pittsburgh itself -- fill out reports by hand. Transcribing them can require hours and, in cases of poor penmanship, lots of squinting.

Unlike in Allegheny County, Philadelphia candidates must submit campaign records electronically, making them easier to post. But even in Philadelphia, Creamer says, "We had campaigns with little old ladies who are afraid of computers." Philadelphia's records department, which built the online system, "did a tremendous job of training people to use the system," Creamer says.

Similar efforts will likely be necessary in Allegheny County, where politics doesn't lack for little old ladies. Experts say it will also require new software, and additional staff -- no easy thing for the cash-strapped county.

Until then, Stalberg says, Allegheny County voters might want to judge candidates by their technological sophistication. "Often, the only reason not to use a computer is to obscure who's giving. Why would you vote for a person who doesn't bother to file by computer?"

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