March 18, 2011

"Sunshine Week" turns out to be rather overcast

We have to agree with this editorial. Transparency is not hard but some government entities (especially local ones) sure like to make it appear hard. This week was supposed to be the celebration of "Sunshine Week" but as the Illinois editorial below points out things are not so sunny in these United States especially at the local level. Again this only repeats what LAAG has been saying for years now. Make transparency a goal, a basic tenant of local government. And transparency means fully accessible on the web. Not in a filing cabinet in the clerks office at city hall. Well perhaps our new city councilmember will make transparency a goal for 2011. We really liked the "Sunshine Review" website idea and have linked to it before on the links section of our page (right hand side of this page).

Our View: Basic transparency shouldn't be hard for local governments

Posted Mar 18, 2011

As newspapers, broadcast stations and websites across the nation mark the annual Sunshine Week focusing on government transparency and accountability, most of the attention goes to the typical themes: open records requests, compliance with open meetings rules, the various attempts by politicians to neuter the laws governing both.

On that last score, it's worth noting that despite a promise by President Obama to boost transparency, his administration faced more requests for documents over the last year but responded to fewer than the year before, according to an Associated Press analysis, with responses taking longer than in years past.

Meanwhile, Illinois' central clearinghouse for public data celebrated its one-year anniversary at, offering quick links to a treasure trove of information on state spending and oversight matters and sometimes laying bare the dysfunction of state government. Some local governments still don't quite get the Open Meetings Act - the most recent being the Midland School Board, which had to re-vote on a lawsuit settlement last month after trying to handle the matter behind closed doors. And last week we detailed in this space the latest effort by Illinois lawmakers to limit the queries some people can make for government data.

But the end-all, be-all of transparency isn't just Freedom of Information Act requests and compliance with the Open Meetings Act. What matters just as much on a daily basis are the common things that, if a municipality takes the time to establish and maintain a website, ought to be included there. That information would include meeting agendas, archives of minutes from past meetings, and the names, phone numbers and/or e-mail addresses of current board members.

To be sure, taxpayers interested in what their officials are doing in their name and with their money can already go to government offices to get meeting agendas and minutes. But it's far easier to have such information just a few keystrokes away. Absolutely, elected officials should make it easy for constituents to become informed. Representing people means being accessible to them.

As you can see from the chart included with this piece, our sampling of local government bodies across central Illinois found many are providing at least that information, and in some cases offering plenty more for inquisitive minds. A handful have slipped behind in letting citizens in on the debates held, the decisions made, the spending authorized. If your board met back in February, why aren't those minutes online yet?

To the others absolutely falling down when it comes to the basics - the Dunlap School Board, where voters only have contact information for one of seven board members; the city of Chillicothe and the Marshall County Board, where constituents searching online can't find e-mail addresses or phone numbers for the folks calling the shots in those communities (there are no minutes for anything the Chillicothe council has done so far this year either) - the message is simple: Step it up.

Even open-government advocacy groups like the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform acknowledge that it can be tough for public bodies to determine what documents citizens have an interest in finding online. What we've described above are the bare minimum. Citizens should complain - now and at the ballot box later if these situations aren't remedied - or things will never change. In our experience, a local government that isn't forthcoming about the basics will try to hide far worse, for the worse.

Lakewood Accountability Action Group™ LAAG | | Lakewood, CA A California Non Profit Association | Demanding action and accountability from local government™ click here to receive LAAG posts by email

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