Without fail, county websites fall short
|A screen shot taken from leecountyil.com, Lee County's new website.|
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DIXON – Lee County just got a new website, but in terms of transparency, one conservative think tank said, it gets an F.
The Illinois Policy Institute, a free market nonprofit, audited the websites of 26 northern Illinois county governments, and all five area counties received failing grades, according to a news release.
In order to score well, counties accumulate points by having different information available on their websites, including the past 5 years’ worth of budgets and audits, lobbying information, employee contracts, and salary and benefit information.
It’s an extensive list, something the nonprofit considers “a laundry list of things that we think are best practices” that encourage participation and discourage corruption, said Brian Costin, its director of government reform.
Most governments don’t measure up.
Of the 26 county governments audited in this last report, only six met the nonprofits’ criteria. Kane County received a 100 percent.
Three area counties – Lee, Ogle and Bureau – failed to meet requirements set out in statute. Bureau failed to post information about its board meetings, and Bureau, Lee and Ogle failed to have information about the Freedom of Information Act and contact information for the FOIA officer.
The city of Dixon, after the arrest of its comptroller in April, has been working with the Illinois Policy Institute to increase its transparency. It, too, received a failing grade.
Kevin Reibel, the vice chairman of the Carroll County Board, saw the report as a wake-up call.
“I think we should probably put as much information as we can online,” he said. “We have a very nice website. ... The more information the better. From my perspective, it’s relatively inexpensive as far as creating a website.”
Carroll County scored points having its latest budget, the last four financial audits, the current requests for bids and proposals, and some taxing information.
At 43.6 out of 100 points, Carroll scored the best of the five area counties.
While population seems to matter overall – of the six counties that received passing grades, all have major cities or contain some Chicago suburbs – Carroll County at just over 15,000 people is the smallest of the five area counties Sauk Valley Media spoke to.
Lee County, which unveiled a new website in May, didn’t do nearly as well. It scored 18 points.
But Mike McBride, the county’s information technology director, said the new website will really open up opportunities for more information to go online because each department will be able to add information on its own instead of going through the IT department.
Already, two additional divisions, probation and the public defenders office, have an online presence they didn’t have on the former decade-old website.
The revamped website cost the county about $7,500, but $2,000 of that will be reimbursed through the Blackhawk Hills website assistance program.
Bureau County has better things to spend its money on, said Dale Anderson, the chairman of the Bureau County Board.
All the information the nonprofit lists, he said, is available, just not on the website.
“We’re not hiding anything,” Anderson said. “All that information is available. It might not be available on the Internet but if somebody wants it, it’s available. ... In a perfect world, it’d be nice to have all that on the website, but we have better places to spend our money right now.”
Ogle County Chairman Jim Barnes agreed.
“I don’t think that we’re trying to hide anything,” he said. “I think everything is above board. If anybody wants information and it’s not on the website, they can come in ask for it.”
And even within Carroll County, not everyone was quick to jump on the nonprofit’s bandwagon.
Both County Board Chairman Rodney Fritz and County Administrator Michael Doty questioned the merits of the study.
Doty pointed out that the review only looks at websites. It does not take into consideration how easy it is to request information and receive it.
He also noted that Carroll County scored above average, “not bad for a small county with less resources than the much larger counties out east, but we will strive to improve.”
“It would not make sense to me to spend any Carroll County taxpayer money to change a website just to satisfy some self-appointed ratings agency,” Fritz added. “Now if a large enough group of Carroll County citizens want something on the county website, we will try to fulfill their requests.”
Doty, though, wasn’t as quick to dismiss it.
“I, for one, am all for openness and making things available for public review and having entities like the Illinois Policy Institute as watchdogs,” he said in an email. “Making it easier to find by placing more on the web page is a good idea and you will continue to see us add more in the future.”
How local counties scored
Score: 8.525 out of 100
What its website has: Information on elected and administrative officials, and this year's budget
What it lacks: Information on meetings, the Freedom of Information Act, financial audits, expenditures, salaries and benefits, vendor and employee contracts, lobbying, and taxes and fees.
Score: 43.6 out of 100
What its website has: Information on elected and administrative officials, meeting agendas and minutes, the Freedom of Information Act, this year's budget, the past four audits, current requests for bids and proposals, and sales and property taxes.
What it lacks: Information on expenditures, salaries and benefits, vendor and employee contracts, lobbying, and fee schedules.
Score: 18 out of 100
What its website has: Information on elected and administrative officials, meetings, this year's budget, and this year's financial audit.
What it lacks: Information on the Freedom of Information Act, expenditures, salaries and benefits, vendor and employee contracts, lobbying, and taxes and fees.
Score: 23.825 out of 100
What its website has: Information on elected and administrative officials, meetings, the past 5 years worth of budgets, union and employee contracts, and fees.
What it lacks: Information on the Freedom of Information Act, financial audits, expenditures, salaries and benefits, vendor contracts, lobbying, and taxes.
Score: 27.35 out of 100
What its website has: Information on elected and administrative officials, meetings, the Freedom of Information Act, last year's audit, and fees.
What it lacks: Information on budgets, expenditures, salaries and benefits, vendor and employee contracts, lobbying, and taxes.
Source: Illinois Policy Institute
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