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.
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