Loretta 1

Breaking News: More than 60 Bergen residents and visitors from throughout the State gathered Thursday December 18 to participate as BGR Inc. gave State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg its 2014 Byron Baer Award
This award is annually given to someone who has made a material difference in carrying out for today the transparency & openness commitments & legislative achievements (including the NJ Open Public Meetings Act) of the late Byron Baer. please click here.

Twelve of her colleagues and constituents whose experience with her spanned all or key segments of the 50 years since she came to Teaneck described why Loretta Weinberg, more than fully meets those criteria. The event was reported by the Record’s Bergen County Reporter, John Ensslin  on December 18. (see: www.northjersey.com and search for Weinberg honored, Byron Baer Award, Ensslin). For BGR’s own depiction of the Baer-Weinberg connection  please click here The event was  held in the Rutherford Room in the Student Union on the Teaneck Campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Other Important BGR work:
Websites and the Transparency Opportunities for Municipalities as seen through the eyes of a current Bergen County Mayor, Paul Aronsohn, Mayor of Ridgewood. January 8 at the Ethical Culture Society in Teaneck (click here to see the Aronsohn program description and here  for directions to the Ethical Culture Society.)
Also, you can still watch Issue-specific Segments from the two BGR Bergen County Forums. Scroll down for directions on accessing these video segments.

BGR conducted a key workshop on Municipal Transparency on December 11.
It drew an intense and articulate group of  both local officials and and transparency advocates into a lively discussion. At the evening’s end, all workshop participants urged BGR to continue the dialogue on these transparency issues in both formal and informal work sessions. Important progress was made in understanding how the State’s municipal Best Practices inventory is currently a good (and could become an even better) performance test mechanism since all State municipalities are required to complete it and certify its accuracy. All municipalities must also provide an opportunity their municipal governing boards to review their municipality’s actual adherence to those Practices. The State has JUST published its state-wide Municipal Best Practices results for 2014 for all state municipalities and BGR has been in dialogue with the Inventory’s creators and is focusing attention on Bergen County municipal responses.

See the BGR website page with those results:  Click here to get access to it.

Background: In August BGR first began an exploration of how well different governments (both county and municipal) are doing in making information available to their citizens. A major initial focus was a Monmouth College study which rated each municipal website in the stat (see references below). But websites are only part of the story.

A Major New Tool to Test Transparency. The State itself  now issues a municipal “best practices” checklist and many of those practices focus on open process and the availability of information about those governmental activities to the public. EVERY MUNICIPALITY IN THE STATE  OF NEW JERSEY MUST COMPLETE THE CHECK LIST AND SCORE WELL ENOUGH ON IT TO QUALIFY FOR ITS FULL COMPLEMENT OF STATE AID. We believe very few citizens even know of the existence of the best Teaneck 2013-2practices process (a snip of page 2 Teaneck’s answers from the 2014 check list is depicted here – have you ever seen it before?). We have initiated a study of how that checklist was developed and will be reporting on how excerpting it will clarify how well your township is doing. But it may well be that citizens will want to explore key answers with the local officials who join us.

How can we get Bergen County citizens acquainted with this list and the way in which they might use it to build better transparency in their own community?
Two steps:

1) We began a two-part exploration of this state process and its implications for building local municipality transparency with a small one-hour clinic on the night of November 6.

2) On Thursday night, December 11 –  at the Ethical Culture Society North and Larch in Teaneck, BGR will hold a full public session that builds on what we have learned to-date. And BGR is bringing  to this meeting the results of active discussion with the current and former state officials who have created and evolved the program. Additionally, several local public officials and advocates will describe their experiments and ideas for how best to make these openness processes work and how to build public confidence in their practices and procedures. State’s Own Summary of Best Practices Program

 Where can you get access to the answers Bergen County Communities gave to the Best Practices Checklist? The state’s latest collection of them for 2014 Has just been published. Click here to get access to it. Here you will also find there an analysis by SC member Ed Lipiner of the logistics as well as the strengths and weaknesses of this state program tool for the purposes of helping municipalities assess and build governance transparency

Another save the date:  Thursday night January 8, 2015 when Ridgewood’s Mayor Paul Aronsohn will review with us his recent efforts to involve the public in revision of the Township’s web site — a segue into a discussion of the role of websites in both public openness and in improved government performance. click here for more info.

You Can Continue to See Issue Segments from BGR’s County Office Candidate Forums

A month before the November 4 election, Bergen Grassroots sponsored forums at the Teaneck Library Auditorium that involved all 6 of the 2014 candidates for elected Bergen County office. They were the first County forums/debates  of the year. The first (9/30) session involved the 4 candidates for the two open positions on the Bergen County Board of Freeholders (the county legislature). The second (10/2) session featured the two candidates for County Executive. Both sessions have gotten extensive media and internet coverage.

BGR, Inc. has built  two new pages on our website where video “issue” segments from each of these 2 forums can be watched. Our goal even post-election is to allow you to see the candidates discuss/debate the issue(s) which are of greatest concern to you. The first page provides you with readily “clickable” issue segments from the Freeholders forum. Click here . both T and DThe second one provides you with access to forum video segments from County Executive candidate forum. Please click here.

BGR, Inc is extraordinarily appreciative to all the candidates for their participation and are grateful about the information about candidate views that emerged.  

 

 

What Constitutes Local Government Transparency?

Bergen Grassroots, Inc.’s August workshop meeting opens up new ways to address the question and leads to the formation of a new BGR, Inc. committee aggressively to pursue the topic and to report back its findings in November

     The definition and criteria for the set of policies, procedures and practices that constitute good local government transparency and openness in the eyes of both residents and officials are neither obvious nor immediately intuitive. But the enterprise of developing those criteria is both critically important and worthy of significant continuing effort. That was the central conclusion of the workshop meeting hosted by Bergen Grassroots, Inc. on the evening of August 7.

     A modest but energetic group of Bergen County residents representing municipalities of very diverse size (ranging from under 8500 residents [Closter and Oradell] to more than 39,000 [Hackensack and Teaneck]) soon determined that even the categories under which to list transparency criteria needed careful thought. The group began the inquiry with a draft of questions (and actual answers) that had, prior to the meeting, been elicited for both the County and several municipalities and that examined three types of transparency practice: 1) official website content, 2) the logistics of opportunities for public input in public meetings and 3) whether provision was made for visual review (videos) of governing board meetings.

     Much of the initial discussion focused on the results of a 2013 report on the content and accessibility of municipal websites published by the public policy department of Monmouth University [see below] – the ratings results of which has been developed by BGR for 68 Bergen municipalities [see below]. A second typology then was offered by BGR, Inc. Steering Committee member Ed Lipiner who divided the inquiry into two categories: 1) Information Dissemination [Meetings Notice, Coverage and Records] and 2) Two-Way Communication.

     Discussion of the two approaches soon stimulated a substantive question that took on its own life in the workshop discussion: “What is it that local governments do that most impacts the lives and generates the interest of their resident communities – and how should the answer to that question shape the search for transparency?” The question was effectively raised by meeting participant Teaneck Councilman Alan Sohn who stressed the importance of the disclosure of financial information – since it is how local governments generate and expend revenue that elicits the strongest citizen concern. He quoted Lewis Brandeis’ “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” The group noted and cited examples of radical differences among municipalities in the nature and understandability of both the release in public meetings, and subsequent website posting, of financial information. All municipalities that have websites are required by the State to post some budget, audit and financial statement meetings – but the diversity, timing and comprehensibility of that information was of concern to all in attendance.

     Steering Committee member Cliff Lewis noted the importance of such information in tracking pay-to-play violations. That led to discussions of how transient is much municipal website information in announcing the onset of or results from municipal bidding processes. Several Teaneck residents cited recent and worrisome examples in that township. Steering Committee member James Kinloch noted that the discussion had revealed a second arena of intense public interest and impact requiring transparency – the data on the role and results of municipal officials – including statutory boards – making decisions about land use and the process of granting variances from existing land use requirements. The fact that consistency in prior notice of and meeting minutes from such boards on many municipal websites was added to the list of important substantive issues whose transparency and accountability needed special attention.

     Steering Committee member Sandi Silverberg punctuated the end of the meeting saying how central she believes this topic is to BGR’s purpose. President Powers proposed the formation of a new committee to evolve the BGR discussion and bring back a report in November. Silverberg and Lipiner immediately volunteered. President Powers is seeking additional members for the committee and urged anyone with ideas to forward them. Active BGR participant Christine Lozier urged the group to, in addition, keep working on some of the social welfare issues where Bergen residents are most vulnerable and BGR President Powers cited several examples of where that kind of BGR work is continuing, including its work on both flooding and health care.

     Following the meeting, Councilman Sohn forwarded a new typology for BGR consideration. It is: Directory Information (Transactional information about events and meetings and the records of what occurs; Financial Information as an independent category; and “How to” information – explanations informing citizens of how to find out on issues about which they otherwise cannot locate data (OPRA access, etc.). That suggestion – as with all others BGR receives – will be forwarded to the new BGR Transparency Committee.

For Reference:

Where you can read the Monmouth University study on line: http://www.monmouth.edu/assets/0/32212254770/32212254991/32212254992/32212254994/32212254995/30064771087/67a073acece143b8a3c933433af7d43a.pdf

Where you can see listed the ranking of Bergen County municipal websites. That file is found here on our website at: http://www.bergengrassroots.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Monmouth-Ranking-of-Bergen-County-Municipal-Websites.pdf

__________________________

Chuck Powers, BGR, Inc. President

Additional Preparation Materials for Bergen Grassroots’ Workshop on Government Transparency

BGR’s “What is Local Government Transparency” Workshop

Logistics: 7:30 August 7, 2014 at the Bergen Ethical Culture Society
(Larch and North in Teaneck)
Join us on Thursday as we work to develop criteria for local government transparency

Guide to 4 sets of Transparency Workshop Background Materials

TRANSPARENCY should not be equated with a government’s official website content and the ease of access to its content. That is why we have developed the draft of a broader list of possible questions that residents may want to ask of their municipal governments (see below).  But it is also the case that Bergen County citizens, trying to understand what their local government is doing, typically go first to the township website.

Happily, there is a very good recent study of New Jersey’s municipal websites done by Monmouth College in 2012 and reported in 2013.

Below we 1) first list the web address to that Monmouth study itself where you can readily see how the public policy faculty there went about specifying criteria for evaluating municipal websites; then 2) we have taken those Monmouth statewide results and provided you with the Bergen County “piece” of that Monmouth study – and the results listing the rank among the 70 Bergen County municipalities are startllng; 3) next we list the website where you can click directly to every one of the 70 Bergen County municipal websites; and 4) we find that local media has given increased attention to how municipalities are working to improve their websites. We give you the website addresses of two of those stories to appear in the last two weeks.

1) Where you can read the Monmouth study on line: http://www.monmouth.edu/assets/0/32212254770/32212254991/32212254992/32212254994/32212254995/30064771087/67a073acece143b8a3c933433af7d43a.pdf

2) Where you can see listed the ranking of Bergen County municipal websites. That file is found HERE on our BGR, Inc. site.

3) Now, if you want to visit some of these Bergen County websites:
All Municipal Websites: http://www.townsinbergencounty.com/nj/bergen/
Bergen County Website: http://www.co.bergen.nj.us/

4) And if you want to see the discussions of official websites now actively occurring in Ridgewood and Demarest, you can click the stories about them at:
http://www.northjersey.com/news/demarest-finally-has-up-to-date-website-again-1.1060626

http://www.northjersey.com/news/ridgewood-seeks-feedback-on-new-municipal-website-1.1055353

Hope to see you at the BGR Workshop on Thursday night