The Macomb Daily
  Monday, December 14, 2009

 

Clerk opens campaign books

 

By Chad Selweski, Macomb Daily Staff Writer

Macomb County voters will soon have, right at their fingertips, a way to keep tabs on local politicians.

A new online service proposed by county Clerk Carmella Sabaugh will make Macomb the first county in Michigan to provide detailed information on campaign contributions from well-heeled individuals, corporations and special interest groups.

The current system on Sabaugh’s Web site allows computer users to search for information on a candidate’s contributions.

But analyzing the connections between specific donors and campaigns can mean searching through hundreds of pages of documents. The new tracking system will provide for research of cross-connections to determine patterns in contributions.

“The benefit to the public is that you can really track who is giving donations. It’s perfect timing with the new form of county government coming, with an executive, because this will shed light on everyone.”

The county Board of Commissioners’ Administrative Services Committee unanimously approved the new service and the full board is expected to follow suit on Thursday. Commissioner Kathy Vosburg, the Chesterfield Township Republican who chairs the committee, said the new disclosure system is a major advancement in the transparency of county government.

Michigan’s top political watchdog, Rich Robinson, said the county deserves praise for helping voters “follow the money” in election campaigns.

“I think it’s very important to have that ability to search by contributor,” said Robinson, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “If … you don’t have that kind of power, it would take forever to figure out the leverage a special interest group has on a legislative body such as the county commission.”

Information will be available for candidates to county, city, township, village and school offices. Beginning in August, prior to the 2010 primary elections, information can be searched in several categories: a contributor’s name, an employer of contributors, contributions by size, and contributions by date.

The system, with a start-up cost of r $19,000, will be similar to those Web sites already offered at the federal and state level. It will offer 2010 data, not past campaign information.

Sabaugh will rely on temporary workers to enter all the data and Consulting Engineering Associates of Detroit, which set up the initial program five years ago, will provide the software upgrades.

Another improvement in online services that was approved by the Administrative Services Committee is a Sabaugh plan to put all county board resolutions and meeting minutes dating back to 1924 in a digital format.

The public will have the ability to search the entire database — some 21,450 pages — by topic or a single word. Currently, most of the old documents are preserved in yellowing volumes that are stored in the basement of the county courthouse.

The Clerk’s Office sought prices online from dozen of companies across the nation and chose Digital Science Group, located near Grand Rapids, which agreed to scan the pages into a PDF format for $1,800.

The commissioners also approved an $11,000 upgrade to the clerk’s system of keeping tabs on candidates’ campaign finance reports.

Funding for the three Sabaugh initiatives will come from the clerk’s special projects budget and the savings gained by terminating three co-op students who worked in her office. In addition, Sabaugh said the changes will streamline her office and improve staff productivity.