For the Good of Illinois

Audit of state, local websites reveals government secrecy a growing problem

March 19, 2014 09:12 AM
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By M.D. Kittle, Watchdog
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Adam Andrzejewski offers a pithy formula for government transparency in a society becoming less and less free.

"Every dime, online, in real time."

That’s the mantra of Andrzejewski’s openthebooks.com, a project of American Transparency, a 501(c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. The website’s goal is to track all spending from federal, state and local governments across the United States.

"Transparency is the foundation of smart government because it answers key questions in public policy: ‘How much does government really cost?’ and ‘Are there indications of waste, fraud or corruption?’" Andrzejewski asserts in a recent blog for the Sunlight Foundation.

But citizen watchdogs like Andrzejewski will tell you that every level of government has a long way to go in meeting the true spirit of that mission.

In honor of Sunshine Week, the national initiative to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy, Watchdog Wire’s national network of citizen journalists tested local government websites from New York to California.

Watchdog Wire, a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, parent of Watchdog.org, in recent weeks has compiled dozens of transparency audits from citizen reporters.

They found that city, county and township websites are generally doing better at making public information accessible, and providing meaningful content for citizens. But real hurdles to transparency remain — some that keep citizens from obtaining vital information about the government that exists only because of their tax dollars.

Every dime isn’t online

A common theme in the citizen audits is that local government websites do a mediocre or even lousy job of providing information on contracts, public employee wages and other taxpayer-critical data.

Clark County, Nev., for instance, provided little information on its website related to supply contracts. The 19th-largest county in the nation, Clark doesn’t include wage and salary information on employees and pension and benefit information on retirees, according to the audit, conducted by Michael Chamberlain, editor of Watchdog Wire-Nevada.

The same goes for Arvada, one of Colorado’s biggest cities.

"(E)xcluding the stipends to council members, any information on Arvada government employee compensation, including salaries, benefits, and pension earnings, is absent. Further, searches for public access to vendor contracts and bid processes came up empty," reports Ben DeGrow, co-editor of Watchdog Wire’s Colorado bureau.

Get to know me

On the Howard County, Md., website, you can read a ponderous 1,500-word hagiography devoted to County Executive Ken Ulman, according to Mark Newgent, state editor of Watchdog Wire-Maryland. You’ll have to scroll down to the bottom of the long-winded page before you get to icon-style links that take you to individual pages or to online services or published reports, Newgent’s audit found.

"The Ulman administration prides itself on making local government more responsive and efficient. In an effort to better engage with constituents, Ulman established annual public forums to give citizens an opportunity to voice their concerns and opinions," the executive bio reports.

Yet, the county executive’s page doesn’t list an office address or contact phone number.

Visitors to the Bell County, Texas, webpage will find similar deficiencies.

"The amount of information available on elected officials varies," notes Lou Ann Anderson, an information activist and the editor of Watchdog Wire-Texas. "While some is detailed, others are identified by little more than name and office. No consistent information regarding year elected, length of term, party affiliation or voting records is offered."

Closed records

Perhaps more troubling are those local government websites that fail to provide information to citizens about filing open records requests.

Maplewood, N.J., just might have the prettiest-looking website in the Garden State, but it provides no notice on New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act law.

The state website and most municipalities contain prominent links to OPRA request processes to make it easy for people to access public data. But Maplewood’s website doesn’t contain any OPRA links or other information about their local process.

"A transparent town would embrace OPRA’s goals by including it in a prominent place on its website. Notifying residents about how to request information might also save the town clerk from the hassle of sorting through improperly routed requests — and perhaps save the town from potential litigation as well," says Lynne Tierney, state editor for Watchdog Wire-New Jersey.

Mary Ellen Beatty, director of citizen outreach for Watchdog Wire, said it’s intimidating enough for the average person to go through the open-records process. She said many citizens believe open-record searches are the sole domain of journalists, and the public is shut out of the process. Not true.

"It can be a really scary process," Beatty said. "Reporters do it every day. For citizens who don’t do it on a regular basis, it can be very intimidating."

Beatty said the audits, as part of Sunshine Week, are a great way to shed light on the importance of transparent government.

"This is a national conversation we need to have to make sure our government is giving us the information we need to have and that we’re using our resources wisely," she said.

 
 

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