Many local governments get poor grades for transparency

Mar 14, 2018

A new report from a local watchdog group faults many local governments for doing a poor job of relaying basic information to the public.

The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government has released its annual report card that grades government websites based on what public information they upload. The coalition consists of citizens who advocate a more open and transparent government.

This year, six out of 16 local governments received a passing score, up from only two last year. The report provides an explanation of why each government received its grade, highlighting categories in which they succeeded and failed.  

The assessment took into account factors such as making budgets and meeting agendas available on the web and providing access to videos of public sessions. Three independent volunteers graded the websites based on ten categories. Wheatfield, Amherst and the Town of Tonawanda received the highest scores, earning 80, 79 and 72 respectively. By comparison, Buffalo received 63, the same failing score it was assigned last year.

Coalition President Paul Wolf said that although he’s encouraged by the increase, he believes there is work to be done.

“We did an update this year and said ‘geez have any of these local governments made changes’ and things have gotten a little bit better,” Wolf said. “So this year, 63% failed, which is better than 90, but certainly we have a long ways to go to making government more open and transparent.”

Wolf’s organization also rated 14 local government authorities, 13 of which failed the coalition’s grading criteria. Scores were calculated using a similar scale, highlighting eight categories which totaled 100 points. The only passing authority was the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, earning a 75.

Wolf is convinced his group is performing an important mission

“I don’t think the criteria is harsh, no one is rely monitoring these types of things,” Wolf said. “There’s no government agencies that makes sure they’re complying with the Open Meetings laws or Freedom of Information Act, just groups like ours as a volunteer act to evaluate these things.”

Wolf said he believes many of the governments don’t take the report card seriously.

“Sadly again, most brush it off,” Wolf said. “I have had some communication with some local governments that after they received our report last year they thanked us for the information and said they were going to try to do better. [For] some of them, given that the scores have improved this year, some of them have made efforts to do better. But for the most part, there wasn’t a positive response.”

Wolf hopes for more open communication between the coalition, local governments and authorities in the coming years. He said it’s important for citizens to hold local officials accountable and insist that information be accessible.