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Improving, but still failing

Group grades counties' website transparency

Most counties in this region are providing more information on their websites, but they're still failing a nonprofit group's test for transparency. 

Lee County saw the greatest improvement from its audit last year – 21 out of 100 points to 48.1. Whiteside County, meanwhile, jumped by a point to 27.4. 

Carroll increased from 32.7 to 49.1, while Ogle went up from 23.8 to 31.7. Bureau County's limited website stayed at 8.5. 

For the last couple of years, the Illinois Policy Institute, a Chicago-based conservative think tank, has rated counties' transparency. In the latest audit, the best-performing counties were typically those with higher populations. Only one county got 100 – suburban Kane County. Cook County received a 65.2. 

The audit looks for such things as contact information for elected officials, annual budgets, employees' salaries, audits, expenditures and contracts. 

Lee County Board Chairman Rick Ketchum, D-Amboy, credited his county's improvement to its information technology employee, Mike McBride.

"When he has time, he updates the site," Ketchum said. "He's a one-man department, so he's overwhelmed. He hasn't been able to do all the updates because of time. We'll never be at 100 percent. That's for sure. Not that we don't want to."

If a county is smaller, he said, it's likelier that it'll have a lower rating.

Brian Costin of the Illinois Policy Institute, the author of the transparency report, said a county's size should make no difference. A lot of the information, he said, only needs to be posted online once a year. 

"Someone can sit down once a year and take the time to put that information online within a day," he said. "We're not asking them to create documents."

Transparency, Costin said, saves money because public bodies don't have to go through the expense and time of copying documents. 

Also, he said, it helps combat corruption. 

The report uses Dixon as an example, saying that if the city had posted more of its information online, Rita Crundwell's corruption might have been stopped.

"Clearly, there are lessons to be learned from Dixon's example," the report says. "The most important lesson is that local governments shouldn't wait for a corruption scandal to hit to learn the advantages of online transparency."

On April 17, 2012, Crundwell, the city's former comptroller, was arrested for stealing nearly $54 million. Days later, the policy institute graded Dixon's website, which got a 16.7 out of 100. 

But the city worked with the institute to improve the site. In December, the city got a 79.6. 

How they scored

Here are the transparency ratings for area counties (100 is a perfect score):

County April 2012 rating June 2013 rating

Bureau 8.5 8.5

Carroll 32.7 49.1

Lee 21.0 48.1

Ogle 23.8 31.7

Whiteside 26.4 27.4

Source: Illinois Policy Institute

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