Saturday, July 24, 2010
Follow the money
Macomb County's new online campaign finance tracking site called most transparent of its kind in state
By Chad Selweski, Macomb Daily Staff Writer
For skeptical voters who want to know who is financially backing a candidate before casting their ballots, it has become a lot easier to "follow the money" in Macomb County politics.
A new online service created by county Clerk Carmella Sabaugh, labeled the most transparent of its kind in Michigan, allows the public to use the clerk's website to search for detailed information on campaign contributions by individuals and political action committees, or PACs. A company's influence on local elections can also be tracked by searching for contributors' employers.
"A lot of people worked really hard to bring about a new form of government in Macomb County and this service will help that new government get an open and transparent start," said Sabaugh, referring to the new county charter that takes effect on Jan. 1. "Campaign finance information does not belong to the candidates. It belongs to the people of Macomb County."
The new service comes online just as the candidates in the Aug. 3 primary must file their pre-election campaign reports. The filing deadline was Friday and Sabaugh's office will gradually offer detailed financial data on each candidate starting Monday. Information on the candidates vying to become Macomb's first county executive will be uploaded first.
Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a Lansing-based nonpartisan watchdog organization, said the campaign finance reporting system is a first among Michigan's 83 counties.
"Macomb County's campaign finance reporting system is the most transparent in Michigan for reporting county and local political money," Robinson said. "The ability to track and report on individual donations has been in place on the federal and state levels, but this is the first time in Michigan it is available on the county and local level. Voters can easily see who is supporting whom for public office, and make their own conclusions about the significance of that support."
Macomb Daily staff photo by Ray J. Skowronek
County Clerk Carmella Sabaugh and Deputy Clerk Todd Schmitz review the features of the county's new online donor-tracking system, which provides greater access to financial information about election candidates.
"Every county in Michigan should follow Macomb's lead and implement a system like this one," Robinson added.
Macomb's electronic reporting system, launched in 2004, was one of the first in Michigan to provide easy, Web-based searches of campaign finance records for local and county candidates. However, it only allowed voters to access a candidate's report, which sometimes meant searching through 100 pages or more of material.
The new system provides cross-tabulated information that allows the public to analyze the financial picture behind each candidate, PAC or donor.
For example, a candidate's largest contributions can be quickly tracked and voters can find out what other campaigns benefited from those big donors. The system also allows voters to determine which candidates get contributions from employees of a specific company. A breakdown of contributions given to candidates by a company's employees is easily accessible.
In addition, a link will be provided from individual contributions to the pages of the campaign finance report where their donations appear.
The county purchased the initial online system through a competitive bid from Consulting Engineering Associates, Inc. in 2004 for a one-time cost of $259,600. The newly added donor-tracking feature cost $19,050, and was financed through budget cuts made by Sabaugh last year.