Wasteful spending runs rampant throughout the ranks of government, from the federal level in Washington, D.C., down to state and local governments and school districts. But public records laws empower citizens to find out what their government is up to and expose reckless spending. Thanks to the Goldwater Institute’s new Open My Government guide, citizens can learn how to use these laws to hold public officials accountable.
Here are five outrageous examples of government waste that underscore the need for citizen oversight:
1. The city of San Francisco “wasted” over $20,000 on a trash can. Following a four-year-long research and development process, city officials stationed 26 new trash cans—15 custom-made prototypes and 11 off-the-shelf cans—around the city this past summer before picking a winner. But why did the city even bother with the custom-made models—which ranged in price from $11,000 to $20,900 each—when the off-the-shelf cans only cost between $630 and $2,800 apiece?
2. Between 2003 and 2017, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority spent at least $416,789 maintaining a self-cleaning toilet. That’s an exorbitant amount of money, but it gets worse: as of 2019, when this wasteful spending came to light, the toilet hadn’t even worked for the past two years.
3. In 2008, California taxpayers agreed to spend $9 billion on a high-speed rail project that would run from San Francisco to Los Angeles, cost $33 billion in total, and be operational by 2020. Fourteen years of delay and mismanagement later, new estimates project it will cost $105 billion, and the first phase of the rail won’t even be finished until 2029.
4. In 2019, the Illinois legislature allocated $98 million to a project that would research and implement a way to reduce the noise trains make when they stop. Illinois taxpayers were forced to pay this bill—a fraction of what the Illinois Policy Institute said was “nearly $4 billion in discretionary funds set aside for politicians’ pork projects”—after two former clients of the Illinois House Speaker complained about the sound.
5. In 2016, Pima County, Arizona officials agreed to loan $15 million to a company that wanted to send tourists to the stratosphere in specially modified weather balloons, with the conditions that World View Enterprises would make monthly repayments and employ a certain number of people. But as of last year, the company had never met its employment targets and hadn’t even been able to make its payments. The Goldwater Institute has led the way in challenging this illegal expenditure, since it violates the Gift Clause of Arizona’s Constitution, which forbids counties from lending or giving taxpayer money to private businesses.
Power to collect and allocate tax dollars is an essential government function; however, without careful oversight, all levels of government are prone to wasteful spending. That’s why concerned citizens, watchdog groups, and journalists have all worked to bring accountability by uncovering extravagant expenditures.
The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and state public records laws allow citizens to keep their government accountable by filing public records requests. These laws are an invaluable tool that provide individuals access to bills and receipts showing how their tax dollars are being spent.
Wasteful spending is just one aspect of government operations that needs oversight. Public records requests have also been used to open the books on public school curriculums and reveal electronic communications between government personnel. The public’s business should be open to the public, which means citizens have a right to arm themselves with the knowledge they need to shine a light on what their government is up to. As the Supreme Court wrote in 1978, “An informed citizenry [is] vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.”
The Goldwater Institute created Open My Government to help citizens successfully submit public records requests. It offers a step-by-step, state-by-state guide that outlines best practices for drafting well-defined requests for public information that are tailored to each state’s unique public records law. And for those who are met with resistance, Goldwater’s American Freedom Network of pro bono attorneys is standing by ready to help citizens in any state access the information they’re entitled to.
You can check out OpenMyGovernment.org here, and you can read a PDF version of the new guide here. If you have questions about this guide or your right to public information, please contact the Goldwater Institute at email@example.com. Litigators interested in defending citizens’ right to public information can apply to join Goldwater’s American Freedom Network of pro bono attorneys here.
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