Posted tagged ‘Sunshine Review’

Sunshine Week

March 17, 2010

The week of March 14th to 20th is Sunshine Week. As stated on www.sunshineweek.org, Sunshine Week is a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.

The goal of Sunshine Week is to highlight and encourage transparency in government. One of the most important ways that government can be transparent is by providing information on the Internet that is comprehensive and easy to access. An organization named Sunshine Review, a nonprofit organization dedicated to state and local government transparency uses a 10 point transparency checklist to evaluate the websites of every state and 5,000 local governments. No governments in New York State received a perfect score or an “A” grade for their websites. A list of communities that did receive a perfect score or an “A” can be viewed here. You can see how counties located within New York State were evaluated here.

Website reviews are tailored differently for states, cities, counties and school districts but in general the checklist looks for the following information:

  • Budgets: The website should include the current budget. Bonus points if the website shows the budgets for previous years, and a graph showing increases or decreases over time to help citizens evaluate and understand trends in local government spending. The checkbook register and credit card receipts should also be posted.
  • Rationale: Budgets show the big picture of what goals and priorities the government established for the year. Budgets details also serve as a way for taxpayers determine how the government performed in relation to past years.
  • Open meeting laws should include notices about public meetings of its governing board, and minutes of past meetings. Also check for meeting agendas for future and/or past meetings.
  • Rationale: Meetings are one of the few ways the public can engage in true dialogue with representatives. Given the reality of busy schedules, governments should offer an alternative to meeting attendance by posting meetings, agendas, locations and minutes on their website.
  • Elected officials should include names of elected officials, and their contact information, including email addresses. Also we should be able to see an elected official’s voting record.
  • Rationale: Officials are elected to represent their constituents. In order to do so effectively they should be engaged in regular dialogue and be as accessible as possibly by providing a variety of ways to be contacted.
  • Administrative Officials should be listed on government websites. The website should include the names of key administrators, and their contact information, including e-mail addresses.
  • Rationale: Administrative staff are knowledgeable resources, provide constituent services and often enforce ordinances. Because of these roles it is imperative for them to be available to constituents by providing contact information to the heads of each department and not just general information.
  • Building permits and zoning: At the very least applications should be available to be downloaded online. In addition, constituents should be able to submit applications and track the process online.
  • Rationale: Almost all government application processes are already digitalized. By facilitating the process online government should cut down on cost and time barriers as well as improving communication and service to their constituents.
  • Audits: The website should include regular an audit information including: report results, audit schedules and performance audits for government programs.
  • Rationale: While budgets give the big picture to constituents, an audit reveals how well the government performs on their goals. An audit reveals how closely elected officials kept their promises, and enable constituents to hold them accountable.
  • Contracts: The website should include rules governing contracts posted online;including bids and contracts for purchases over $10,000 and the vendor’s campaign contributions posted with contract.
  • Rationale: Contracts should be available for review so the people can evaluate if the contract was a no bid replacement and/or if the government chose the best solution for its constituents.
  • Lobbying: If the unit of government belongs to any taxpayer-funded lobbying associations that it helps to fund by paying association or membership dues, that information should be disclosed on the government unit’s website.
  • Rationale: Almost all government entities have lobbyists on retainer or are members of an association that lobbys on their behalf. This information should be disclosed to constituents, so they can make sure what is being lobbied benefits the community.
  • Public records: The website should include the name of the person who is in charge of fulfilling open records requests, along with contact information for that person.
  • Rationale: The government is obligated by law to answer FOIA requests. By posting an individual contact, it creates an avenue which should ease the way for constituents and displaces ill-will often caused by a confusing process.
  • Taxes: The website should include a central location for all tax information, including state “fees” such as drivers’ licenses; Tax documents for all elected officials and each agencies sources of revenue.

Rationale:

Tax information should be available to those looking to move or sell residences in their district. Disclosing tax burdens accurately reflects the                                 cost of living.
Pushing for your local government to have a website that is highly rated by an organization such as Sunshine Review, could be a nice achievement for not only you but your entire community.