Transparency and City Hall’s Digital Divide

A recent commercial shows LeBron James attempting to play basketball with outdated equipment. His ball is worn and has no air and his tight 70’s era shorts restrict his movements. This equipment hampers him and he fails to score. I’m sure LeBron would agree that playing with outdated equipment makes it next to impossible to adequately perform. Mount Vernon City Hall has been playing the “government game” with a deflated ball for a long time.

A recent editorial critique in a community newspaper took exception to the City of Mount Vernon’s level of responsiveness to a journalist’s Freedom of Information Request (FOIA); however, they failed to acknowledge the outdated equipment, technology, and staffing levels that led to the city’s slowness. As an administration, we value complete transparency and share the paper’s belief that taxpayers have a right to know how their government is operating.

We also share their desire to have more factual information at our fingertips or at least just a few keystrokes away.

A Freedom of Information request is when a party desires particular statistical or factual information from the government. This law was enacted with the dawning of the information age that most of us now and long have inhabited. In seconds, smartphones that can fit in your palm or pocket can access virtually all information known to mankind. Unfortunately, in many respects, our own City Hall is still in the pre-dawn hours.

When my administration took office in January 2016 we began to take stock of the digital capabilities of each city agency. What we found shocked us: city agencies and their record-keeping operated like the year 1970, with little more than loose-leaf binders and Bic pens. A manual typewriter was nearly top of the heap in terms of technological sophistication the city could deploy.

Since taking office, I have been strongly advocating to my colleagues in the City Council and our City Comptroller that Mount Vernon seriously upgrade our technology, record keeping systems, including all filing systems related to personnel, and digital access for the public. The solution appears simple, but the work to get it done is complicated, but possible with the cooperation and support of a strong team. Here is a video recap of our City Hall walk through with Microsoft showing the magnitude of work that needs to be done.

We can get this done if Comptroller Walker and the City Council simply join the team.

We understand that taxes in Mount Vernon are expensive and we believe that we can reduce the cost burden by bringing more transparency to our operations. We attempted to do this in mid-2016 when we sought to put GPS tracking devices in sanitation and plow trucks. This would help improve performance and provide real-time reporting to the public. The response from Comptroller Walker’s office was, “Why do you need it?” We gave the obvious answer, that is, to save taxpayer dollars by better managing operations, exacting accountability, and delivering better services for our residents. Though not our choice, we do without and continue to do our best to track and measure performance with our Bic pens and loose leaf binders — daily.

We have taken additional steps such as broadcasting all public meetings chaired by the Mayor on Facebook. Private citizens have also responded to the Council’s lethargy and taken to videotaping and publishing the City Council’s meetings on YouTube. My administration has surveyed Westchester County and we are the only city that has no public access. This is unacceptable. Early last year, I inked a deal with the city’s cable provider to provide this public access and over one million in revenue and yet the Council has refused to act. This inaction has caused us to lose millions and hampered our ability to be fully transparent. When you don’t permit upgrades to technology and you refuse to fund roles in the city government as designed by our Charter (5th Corporation Counsel, Commissioner of Public Safety, Inspector General, City Engineer and the entire Bureau of Engineering, Deputy Mayor, Chief of Staff, you hamper the ability of the city to get work done.

Until the Council acts, we will continue to work, we are going department-by-department and addressing public needs as efficiently as we are able. A 2012–13 audit by the State Comptroller of the Mount Vernon Department of Buildings found our systems so antiquated they were costing the city treasury vast sums in lost building permit fees. In 2017, Mercy College’s Strategic Consulting Institute found the same digital divide in our Department of Public Works noting that Mount Vernon was the only city in the entire state of New York to remain undigitalized.

This antiquated system has real-life consequences. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli determined that, as a result, the Department of Buildings was missing out on $281,000 in lost permit fees. This agency also suffered under the burden of a 3-year building inspection backlog. In the last nine months, my administration took aggressive corrective action, clearing some 450 permits, which in-turn generated $2.4 million in new local construction spending and $880,711 in permit fees to the city. We hope these new revenues can be used to reinvest in new technology and training for the Buildings Department.

In recent months we have been proactively meeting with leaders from Microsoft and Mercy College to move our city, its records, and interactions with the public onto the cloud. For us to be able to transform from pencils and erasers to pixels, megabytes and digital transparency, will be a revolution for our tax payers and is a service they deserve.

Mayor Thomas meets with the Mercy College Team to discuss digitalizing Mount Vernon

The timeline for this is now. While we have been busy moving towards modernizing our city’s capability to govern and be more responsive to the public, we know we need to do better.

According to the Journal News, Comptroller Walker released a list of 600 active city employees. While we applaud her efforts to comply with a data request, we are concerned first that the list does not adequately represent the city’s payroll and that it took months for the information to become available, because the city is not yet digitally in the modern era.

The Journal News report on the city’s records is a wake-up call that will make my office work harder. The totality of the information sought is unfortunately scattered haphazardly in filing cabinets across several city buildings, on carbon copied spreadsheets filled out in ballpoint pen and pencil, and poorly maintained.

It is absurd that in this day and age, in a city of 80,000 in the heart of the New York Metropolitan region, we are still maintaining important municipal business in such fashion. Never the less we are working diligently to respond to the full scope of the FOIA requests. In the meantime, we will continue to work towards modernization and digitization so that Mount Vernon can be as transparent as possible, allowing the public to have a more responsive government.

Richard Thomas is mayor of the city of Mount Vernon, New York.