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County to Detail How Much It Spends with Each Vendor

Arlington County is working to publicly release data on payments to vendors, according to an email exchange between county officials and a local resident.

The new initiative came to light after a local resident filed a Freedom of Information Act Request to obtain a list of county expenditures, sorted by vendor, for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. Some other localities publicly list such information, in the interest of transparency and showing which companies were being paid by the local government.

The county’s initial response to the FOIA request was to demand payment of $8,750 to produce the information, citing a need for a budget analyst to spend 250 hours to compile it.

“The County is permitted to make reasonable charges to cover the County’s actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for any potential responsive records. The estimated cost associated with the request is $8,750.00,” the Arlington County FOIA office said in a letter. “Arlington County must review the financial data for potential exemptions to protect sensitive information on a line-item basis, which is the reason for this cost estimate.”

The resident, Patrick Lockhart, then appealed to the County Board and the County Manager to intervene. In response, the County Manager’s office agreed to waive the fee, noting that vendor payment information is set to be released through the county’s Arlington Wallet portal.

The website, which launched in early 2019, contains charts and graphs intended to give residents a clearer look at how officials are spending money each year.

There’s no word yet on when the new vendor-level expenditure information will be released, but a county official said it’s coming soon.

“Our Department of Management and Finance (DMF) has been working on the next phase of Arlington Wallet for some time now, and is actually getting close to being able to roll that out publicly,” wrote Ben Aiken, Director of Constituent Services in the County Manager’s office. “This next phase will contain the transaction level detail that will include vendor name and transaction descriptions, amongst other attributes.”

The full email is below.

Mr. Lockhart,

First, let me apologize for some of the confusion around your request. I believe I can explain, and give you some expectations on when this information may be released. Our Department of Management and Finance (DMF) has been working on the next phase of Arlington Wallet for some time now, and is actually getting close to being able to roll that out publicly. This next phase will contain the transaction level detail that will include vendor name and transaction descriptions, amongst other attributes. The complicated part of that project (and which is mirrored in this FOIA request) is our ability to filter or redact sensitive transactions with “vendors” such as Department of Human Services (DHS) clients, legal settlements with individuals, or related to undercover police operations. With our current technical capabilities we are required to perform a manual review of tens of thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of records in order to identify those that legally need to be partially or fully redacted. Other jurisdictions’ financial systems may be configured in a way that enables this sort of filtering to occur automatically, or with minimal manual review. Unfortunately, ours do not.

We are actively working to finalize our own automated process that will enable the regular publication of this type of data, but it’s not quite ready yet. We absolutely support the release of this type of information by Arlington County Government and certainly wish we had the ability to do so more efficiently. The cost estimate you received reflects the time required to review all of these current records immediately under our legal obligation to respond to your FOIA request. I regret not having time to explain this to you fully prior to providing that cost estimate. As you can imagine, our staff capacity is stretched right now, and so you can hopefully forgive us for not having been more proactive in reaching out to you.

With that said, I’ve asked our DMF what potential options we have to pursue releasing this information that you’ve requested in advance of this next phase of our Open Gov Arlington Wallet. At my request, DMF is going to facilitate an expedited review of these records to screen and filter for any exempt vendor information. For most departments this review will be quick and painless, but for others this will take a bit of staff time. I have no problem waiving the fee for this since this release is something we’re planning to do proactively anyway, but having some more time to conduct the review would be a huge help.

If you would like to offer us the courtesy, under FOIA, to extend our available time to respond “at our earliest convenience,” then I assure you we will do our level best to release this information as soon as we are able. Alternatively, we could release to you a smaller set of vendor data which redacts entire departments, such as our DHS, Police Department, and County Attorney’s Office, which have the majority of these sensitive records and which will take us the longest to parse for potential exemptions. That latter option might be available to you as soon as tomorrow or early next week, should you wish to receive it.

I hope this clarifies the County’s position. Again, we are committed to transparency both pursuant to our legal obligations but also as a proactive measure of open government – which is a priority for the County Manager. Please let me know how you would like to proceed in terms of receiving these records, or a revised subset, or simply if you have other questions or need clarification.

Ben Aiken
Director of Constituent Services
Arlington County Manager’s Office

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