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updated: 7/10/2013 12:20 PM

Audit: Suburban governments far from transparent

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  • Who is transparent

    Graphic: Who is transparent

  • Failing online

    Graphic: Failing online

 
 

When it comes to posting certain information on government websites so that it's readily accessible to the public, most suburban agencies have a long way to go before they can call themselves completely transparent, an audit from the Illinois Policy Institute has found.

Of the 102 suburban governmental agencies the institute audited and scored, a Daily Herald analysis showed 70 posted scores of 60 percent or below, which the institute considers a failing grade.

While the remaining 32 agencies scored higher than 60 percent -- three with perfect scores of 100 percent -- the average score in the suburbs was a paltry 48.1 percent, which shows there's lots of work to be done, said Brian Costin, the institute's director of government reform.

"It's a missed opportunity to really engage the public to participate," Costin said. "Transparency is a corruption fighter. It's a preventive measure that local governments can introduce to be a deterrent to anyone that is not acting in the interest of the community."

As part of its local transparency project, the institute, a nonpartisan research and education organization that promotes government transparency, audited websites for more than 300 Illinois government entities, including 102 in the Daily Herald's coverage area. Costin estimates that between 10 and 15 percent of the government entities requested the audit.

"We certainly have big problems in Illinois and ... one of the biggest areas is public corruption," Costin said. "That's one of the reasons why we're doing this -- we want to change the narrative, and one of the most definitive public policy tools we have to fight back against corruption is online transparency."

The institute used its 10-point transparency checklist to review websites for the following criteria:

• Contact information for elected and top administrative officials.

• Meeting information, including board packets and minutes.

• Details about how to submit a Freedom of Information Act request and contact information for the FOIA officer.

• Salary and benefits information.

• Budgets for the general fund and special projects.

• Comprehensive annual financial reports.

• Information on expenditures, including a checkbook register and credit card receipts.

• Contracts the entity has with unions, private contractors and vendors.

• Any money spent on hiring lobbying associations.

• Taxes and fees the entity charges its residents and businesses.

Using that criteria, the institute issued scores to the agencies and let them know where they stand compared with other entities.

"It's important because the taxpayers have a right to know what their government is doing, how they're spending their tax money," Costin said of the audit. "If the elected officials want people to participate, they're going to put it out there. It really helps people participate in a democracy in an educated manner."

'Nothing to hide'

The institute started its project in 2010 and adds new entities and scores to its list on a regular basis, Costin said.

The accuracy of the current ranking relies on government employees to request an audit after they've made improvements to their sites. The score isn't set in stone, and an institution can always try to get a better score.

That's exactly what Vickie Novak, director of the Glenview Public Library, did.

According to the audit, the library initially posted the lowest score in the suburbs, with 5.8 percent.

But the last time the institute rated the library's site was in 2010, before the library revamped the site to include some of the institute's recommendations, Novak said. She requested another review in June, and the library ended up scoring 28.9 percent.

"I am confounded by the score that was attributed to the library, as it would appear, given the criteria on their website, that we should have scored much higher," Novak said of the original score. "It's important to us and to the board, and we have nothing to hide."

Barrington Village Manager Jeff Lawler, who was surprised to hear the village scored 31.7 percent on the audit, could also request another review.

Lawler said the ranking doesn't match up. The village has done a lot of work on its website over the last couple of years, adding more information in a new user-friendly format with a "robust search function" when a topic is available but deeper than the main page. "We've worked hard on the website and we're proud of how useful we think it is," Lawler said. "I use it all the time myself."

Costin said his team scored Barrington's website in 2010 and hasn't taken a second look since.

At the Elgin-based Gail Borden Public Library District, its 2010 score of 20.8 percent appears to be justified.

The website does not list emails or phone numbers for its board members. To reach them, you must fill out a form on the website. On another part of its website, former trustees Randy Hopp and Penny Wegman are still listed as active trustees.

Moreover, in order to view the library district's financial information, including audits, budgets, monthly statements, annual receipts and disbursement reports, you'll have to fill out a Freedom of Information Act request because none of it is available on the website.

While the library district may have posted a low score with the institute, board President Rick McCarthy said the website meets the state's legal requirements for transparency.

Those legal requirements include listing meeting agendas and minutes, an organizational chart, location of its offices, the number of employees, its total operating budget, its purpose and how to request information through the Freedom of Information Act.

But rather than listing the employees who make more than $75,000 a year -- another legal requirement -- the library's site directs users to find that information in the administration office. Fees also are not listed on the site.

The more information you put on the website, the more staff time it takes to do that and to continually maintain and update those records, McCarthy said. "You could have people spending tons of time on this stuff that virtually nobody's going to look at," McCarthy said. "It's cutting the balance on how much taxpayer money you want to have on that and yet still making it a transparent organization. The bottom line is people can find out anything they want, and the fact it's not on the website doesn't mean they can't find it out (through a FOIA request). We're happy to serve people that way."

The good scores

On the brighter end of the spectrum, 32 suburban agencies scored higher than 60 percent, with three -- Lombard, Kane County and Hanover Township -- earning a perfect score of 100 percent. Huntley was at 98.3 percent.

The institute honors entities that scored 80 percent and above with its Sunshine Award for excellence in online transparency.

These other governments have or will receive the certificate of recognition: Bensenville, Will County, Naperville, Elmhurst Community School District 205, DuPage County, Elmhurst, Lake County, Schaumburg, Arlington Heights, Glenview, Township High School District 211, Oakton Community College, DuPage High School District 88, Hinsdale, the Downers Grove Park District and Downers Grove.

Lombard's efforts to post additional information on its website coincided with the village's new mission to share more information with the public, Village Manager David Hulseberg said.

The village requested the audit after updating its website to follow the institute's 10-point transparency checklist. "It's more of a policy issue that the village board looked at and said, 'This is all public information that our residents have a right to see and not feel like they have to ask us for it, so let's just put it out there,'" Hulseberg said.

Huntley, a new addition to the transparency audit, used the institute's checklist as a blueprint to create a citizens information center on its website.

Huntley's online center directs the public to all of the information the institute requested on its transparency checklist. Rita McMahon, the village clerk and FOIA officer, said there's a benefit to being more open with the public.

"If it's out there it cuts down on our staff time (needed) to respond to the FOIA requests," McMahon said. "We work for the taxpayers, so they should see that information."

• Daily Herald staff writer Tara Garcia Mathewson contributed to this story.

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