By Alan Johnson

Putting the checkbooks of cities, counties, villages, townships and schools online, state Auditor Dave Yost says, could accomplish that rarest of things: restoring Ohioans faith in government.

Yost and Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel pitched a plan on Tuesday for the state to partner with thousands of government entities to put spending records, or checkbooks, online for taxpayers to see. The service would be provided by Mandel's office at no charge to the local governments.

Yost, a former county prosecutor and newspaper reporter, said the online proposal is a nonpartisan issue that could be the "most important transparency initiative since the original public-records law." He noted that faith in government has eroded sharply over several decades.

"This is a step toward a way back to where government is trusted," he said.

Mandel, who pushed, the state's online checkbook, urged local officials to get onboard a similar statewide online database being developed with the help of a Silicon Valley firm, OpenGov, of Redwood City, Calif. The contract with OpenGov is currently being negotiated and Mandel did not have an estimated cost.

Participation for government entities will be voluntary, but encouraged, Mandel said.

"I believe very strongly the people of Ohio deserve to know how their money is being spent," Mandel said at a news conference where he was flanked by government officials from around the state. He said online access will "take citizens who feel powerless and make them powerful."

He sent letters Tuesday to 18,062 officials with 3,962 local government entities around Ohio advising them of the checkbook initiative, which he said would be a "friendly, cooperative partnership."

The city of Findlay, in Hancock County, is one of the first to sign up, Mayor Lydia Mihalik said. "We knew right away this was where we wanted to be. They've made it really easy to share information with the people."

Dan Unger, the president of Northwest Local Schools in Hamilton County, said he expects his district will be the first in the state to go online.

"A thousand sets of eyes will promote good spending behavior," he said.

Joining Mandel and Yost on Tuesday supporting the online checkbook were officials from the Ohio Municipal League, Ohio Township Association, Ohio Association of School Business Officials and the Ohio Society of Certified Public Accountants.

The database Mandel envisions would be available on the state site as well as on individual government websites.

The cost to the state will depend on the number of government entities that participate, Mandel said. He expects the total cost will be paid out of the $6 million he said his office has made in budget cutbacks.

So far, the state has spent $814,000 on the Ohio checkbook project.

(c)2015 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)