State, local government transparency slowly improving, says watchdog

In mid-July 2010, a firestorm of controversy came upon the town of Bell, California. A Los Angeles Times report found that Bell’s top officials – city manager, police chief, assistant city manager – were making two or three times the going rate for those positions elsewhere. The largely poor, largely Latino community had a city manager who made nearly $800,000 per year and its police chief just over $450,000 a year.

This LA Times news article, and the investigations that have followed, spurred California to pass wide-ranging public compensation reform laws, and several current and former Bell officials have been arrested on corruption and kickback charges. The news garnered national attention and led many cities and state legislators to publish their own salary and compensation information.

This, says Sunshine Review President Michael Barnhart, was a defining moment for his group and his cause. Sunshine Review is a state and local government watchdog that advocates for open, transparent and engaged government. The group has a 10-point Transparency Checklist and annually evaluates more than 6,000 state and local government websites.

In a recent interview with Mr. Barnhart, he told CivSource that Bell, California created a moment where citizens woke up to “what’s possible when citizens don’t know what’s going on in local government and don’t have access to information to hold elected officials accountable.”

“I sense that there’s a much more aggressive attitude towards state and local transparency [since Bell],” he said. “While it was a bad thing, it had a positive impact on citizens’ curiosity.”

Recently, Sunshine Review relaunched its website. The overhaul, Mr. Barnhart said, melds the open access feel of a traditional wiki platform, but it also has some features of a traditional website. “We wanted a well-designed, contemporary homepage with social media and other functions that users need. But once you dig inside, it’s an open source, traditional wiki.”

The wiki is meant to help journalists, bloggers, and everyday citizens understand what their state and local governments are doing to process FOIA requests faster, make state finances easily available and pass legislation intended to make government more transparent, among other things.

Last March, Sunshine Review 5,000 government websites and awarded Sunny Awards, highlighting those governments that scored well on SR’s 10-point checklist. Sunshine Review only gave scores of 9’s or 10’s to forty of the 5,000 websites, but this year he’s hopeful to give substantially more, he said.

Mr. Barnhart indicated that while transparency is getting better across the country, it’s moving slowly. He said that many governments are still saddled with the notion that maintenance and regularly posting electronic data is more expensive than having paper records. But he argues that developments in technology have changed the landscape of record keeping and public information.

“Websites used to be electronic bulletin boards, but now, information is much more searchable. Both social media and the development of web technology has made it so more and more information can be provided in real time.”

These changes have spurred conversations, within Sunshine Review, about what best practices are being adopted by state and local governments, Mr. Barnhart indicated. Following this year’s awards process, “One of the things we’ll do is look at our checklist and think about how we might change some of the measurements,” he said. “We’ll always want to adapt the checklist to emerging technologies and how governments provide information.”

“All-in-all, state and local government transparency is getting better, but it should be happening faster,” he said. “We’re concerned, on an on-going basis, that there are more Bells out there and taxpayers ought to pay close attention.”