Sunshine Lows: Cities and Counties Do a Lousy Job of Sharing Information With Citizens
FlaglerLive | June 3, 2014
By Shannon Nickinson
When the First Amendment Foundation publicized its transparency scorecard last month, it found that on average, cities and counties in Florida had lots of room for improvement in sharing the workings of government with the governed.
On average, local government websites earned 52 out of 100 possible points on a transparency scorecard. The scores were based on how easy it was to navigate these sites to find answers to common queries.
Some Northwest Florida governments saw above-average scores: The City of Pensacola scored 74, the third-highest total of the 47 cities scored by the foundation; Fort Walton Beach, (the closest neighboring city scored) earned 70.
Santa Rosa County scored 64, and Escambia County’s site scored 58 out of 100 points.
The scorecard looks at seven categories: financial, accountability, public meetings, contact information, public records, ease of use and other features, such as zoning and building regulations, links to property assessments, and links to check on crime reported in neighborhoods.
The most transparent sites shared more than meeting agendas and how-to-contact information.
They listed the names and salaries of all public employees. They showed the check registers, so you could see to whom the checks were written. They made property tax rates easy to find. They listed the names of registered lobbyists. They linked to the elected officials’ financial disclosure forms.
They answered the question “how do I” register to vote, apply for a building permit, become a volunteer, pay child support or find out the crime statistics for the area.
Even if the answer wasn’t in that agency’s silo of expertise.
Making information easy for the public to get? Well knock me over with a feather.
Public information officials for both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties noted that things their sites were “dinged” for not having readily available were things that weren’t strictly under the authority of county commissioners.
While that is true, it is worth noting that communities that made the extra effort to prominently link to a crime-mapping tool, for example, to make elected officials’ financial disclosure forms easy to find — to step outside of their silo — were rewarded.
And that, friends, is the difference between embracing the spirit and the letter of the law.
In an area whose political tradition is too often to yell, “Not it!” especially if “it” is not good news, that’s not the impression we need to leave with folks.
In the connected, social media-fueled world we occupy, people will find that information. Better they hear from us, don’t you think?