A report card for local government websites and how well they share information with the public is out this week from the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government. Bottom line up front – the grades aren’t good.
“We took a look at 16 local government websites, rated them on 10 different items and, sadly, 14 out of the 16 websites received an ‘F’ grade as far as their lack of information that they’re providing to the public, or the lack of doing it in a timely manner,” said Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government President Paul Wolf, Esq.
Each website was reviewed and rated independently by teams of three volunteers whose scores were averaged for a final grade. While the study was not scientific in nature, it looked at 10 “key” areas:
1) The posting of meeting agendas and entire board packets for 5 years
2) The posting of meeting minutes in a timely fashion for 5 years
3) Citizens are provided an opportunity to speak prior to board members voting
4) Meetings are video recorded and posted online
5) Telephone numbers and email addresses are posted for all elected officials
6) Telephone numbers and email addresses posted for all department heads
7) Instruction and forms on how to file a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request are on the home page
8) Financial disclosure forms for elected officials are posted
9) Citizens can sign up to receive email notification of meetings and public hearings
10) Five years of budgets are online
Each area was ranked on a ten point basis, with final grades of ‘A’ for 90 to 100, ‘B+’ for 85 to 90, ‘B’ for 80 to 84, ‘C+’ for 75 to 79, ‘C’ for 70 to 74, ‘D’ for 65 to 69, and ‘F’ for 64 and below.
Top in the ranks are the Towns of Amherst and Wheatfield – both with C+ grades. But Wolf said it’s nothing to brag about.
“I think it’s just drawing attention to the importance of these things. I know local governments do a lot, there’s a lot going on, but these things are important. You should be able to know what happened at your last town board meeting before you go to the next one.”
Every other municipality on the list – including both Erie and Niagara County – got a grade of ‘F.’
“No municipality is posting financial disclosure forms that local government officials complete, so everybody lost ten points there.”
Only three out of 16 municipalities record their meetings on video and post them online, losing another ten points for 13 of them. Many lost additional points for lack of contact information.
While several municipalities are weeks, if not months, behind in posting their agendas, attachments, and meeting minutes, the fixes are easy, according to Wolf.
“[The] interesting thing I liked about the study was Amherst and Wheatfield got the two best scores. Amherst is a very large municipality. Wheatfield is very small. Wheatfield has 18,000 people. So it’s really not a question of resources, and Wheatfield videotapes their meetings and posts them.”
Wolf said the moderate cost of going the extra step, such as videotaping and posting meetings, shows a dedication and focus to open government.
The report was released this week for a reason: to coincide with Sunshine Week – a national celebration of open government and free press – and National Freedom of Information Day, which honors the birthday of James Madison – the 4th U.S. President, an architect of the constitution, and a strong proponent of open government.
But for many Western New Yorkers, filing a Freedom of Information Law request may be a foreign concept. And, according to the report, most local governments aren’t helping to change that. Of the 16, only the Town of Amherst has information on FOIL prominently posted on its website.
“The public has a right to know,” said Wolf. “We have a right to know what our elected officials are doing.”
The good news in all this is that – according to Wolf – the fixes are easy, and his coalition is willing to help.
“I don’t want to just take shots and walk away. We’re here to help,” said Wolf. “The goal is to make these websites better and I hope they’ll view the report in that light.”
Wolf said the report is the first of its kind to be done locally, though other similar studies have likely been conducted by the Sunshine Foundation for counties and cities on a larger scale. He also believes the local assessment looks at categories not evaluated elsewhere.
As for whether there will be a follow-up report to see if grades go up, Wolf hasn’t thought about it yet. He and the coalition are focused right now on working to fix the issues identified this year.
See where your municipality ranks and check out their websites...
1) Town of Amherst - 77.0 % / C+
2) Town of Wheatfield - 75.5 % / C+
3) City of Buffalo - 63.0 % / F
4) Erie County - 62.0 % / F
5) Town of Tonawanda - 60.0 % / F
6) City of North Tonawanda - 59.0 % / F
7) Town of West Seneca - 57.0 % / F
8) Town of Cheektowaga - 56.0 % / F
9) Town of Lancaster - 53.0 % / F
10) Niagara County - 51.0 % / F
11) City of Niagara Falls - 51.0 % / F
12) City of Lockport - 50.0 % / F
13) Town of Hamburg - 48.5 % / F
14) Town of Lewiston - 48.5 % / F
15) Town of Lockport - 34.5 % / F
16) Village of Lewiston - 29.0 % / F
More information on the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government and the full Local Government Website Report Card is available on their website.