City financial disclosure forms now posted online

For the first time, financial disclosure forms for nearly 1,900 Baltimore government officials will be online for public inspection, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced Monday.

Individuals will be able to search online for loans, family income sources, gifts and business relationships for government workers and elected officials. The change eliminates the need to travel to City Hall to pull documents, though residents will not be able to use the system until they set up an account in person.

"Residents won't have to come all the way down to review these documents any more and wait while Ethics Board staff search through file cabinets of information," Rawlings-Blake said.

The project — in the works for about a year and a half — cost about $60,000.

City ethics officials said they believe Baltimore will be among the first jurisdictions in the state to allow online access to all filed disclosure forms.

Baltimore County has elected officials' forms online, and other jurisdictions allow digital filing. Many governments, including at the state level, require residents to pick up requested forms in person.

Users will still have to verify their identity in person before they can view forms remotely, based on requirements in city law.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, director of Common Cause Maryland, called Baltimore's online disclosure "a tremendous step forward." Nationwide, a shift is underway to put all public documents online, and Maryland has lagged behind that movement.

"The state law requires all of this information be gathered, but it doesn't require that it be easily available, so we are happy to see the city taking proactive steps," Bevan-Dangel said.

Linda "Lu" Pierson, chairwoman of the Ethics Board, said the searchability of the city's new database is among the most advanced in the state.

The online system will store previous reports, making it easier on those required to file and providing year-over-year comparisons for the public to review, she said.

The database will allow individuals to search disclosure forms by agency, name and job title.

Some forms are online already, and others will be uploaded as they are submitted. Workers and elected officials will have until the end of April to file paper forms and through June to make electronic declarations. Paper forms will be scanned and posted online by Ethics Board staff.

"From the standpoint of the Ethics Board, it will make compliance much easier to track," Pierson said. "It will save us thousands and thousands of pages of documents to store and file."

The five-member Ethics Board must still decide whether to mandate that forms be filed online next year or continue to allow paper filings. The board also still must decide how far back to go when scanning and posting records from past years.

Rawlings-Blake called the database a "key reform."

"I want transparency and openness in government to be on the top of the list of why people want to stay in Baltimore," the mayor said.

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