Mayor Turner administration puts city’s government transparency project on hold

Turner has now blocked the effort that would've allowed tax players to clearly see how their money is being spent
Turner has now blocked the effort that would've allowed tax players to clearly see how their money is being spent

HOUSTON – Almost every other major city in the U.S. does it, but Houston does not.

“Of the top 20 cities in the country, there is only one other city in the country and that is Jacksonville, Florida,” said the city of Houston controller, Chris Brown.

Brown’s office has been working to make city expenditures more easily visible to the public, but his latest attempt has been stymied by Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Brown’s office was halfway done with an online city “checkbook portal,” very similar to what New York City uses.

San Antonio and Austin also have similar websites that allow members of the public to monitor how their tax dollars are spent.

“That allows you to see, not only vendor payments, but employee payroll, grant payments, all types, whether it’s in the general fund, in the aviation, convention, entertainment, all of the different enterprise fund payments, and then it allows you to see it grouped into different fields. You can see in total how much a particular vendor gets paid in this year, lump payments together, so you get a much more accurate picture of what’s going on in real-time,” said Brown.

In June 2019, Mayor Turner appeared to be on board with the checkbook project.

“Let the administration get with the comptroller’s office to see if we can get this done,” said Turner during a city council meeting.

But fast forward almost two years later, and the mayor appears to have changed his mind about the transparency effort.

KPRC 2 Investigates obtained the April 2021 email that appeared to sideline the project:

City of Houston email shows transparency project put on hold. (KPRC-TV)

Mayor Turner declined to answer questions about the effort to derail the city government transparency program after an unrelated press conference on Tuesday.

However, Turner’s office did send a short follow-up statement following our inquiry: “All of the information is readily available and the item is currently under review.”

Currently, the city of Houston does offer a more rudimentary way for the public to view payments the city makes to vendors, but not payroll disbursements, grants, or other payouts. That portal is located here: https://cohweb.houstontx.gov/controllerdisbursement/

Both Brown and the State of Texas would disagree with that statement. The state comptroller’s office has a program that awards “stars” to government entities that achieve sufficient financial transparency: https://comptroller.texas.gov/transparency/local/stars/

Houston has earned 0 out of 5 stars.

Controller Brown said he is investigating ways to get the “checkbook project” off the ground without the mayor’s assistance.