A Report on our 2 County Candidate forums and how you can watch Issue-specific Forum Segments;
What is [in the 9th] is not [in the 5th] happening with major party candidate Congressional race dialogue this election season
Plans for the 11/6 session on Municipal Transparency;
Do you have a Nomination for the Byron Baer Award on 12/11?

Forums for Candidates for County Office: On September 30 and October 2, Bergen Grassroots sponsored forums at the Teaneck Library Auditorium that involved all of the 2014 candidates for elected Bergen County office. They were the first County forums/debates  of the year. Areas of both agreement and disagreement emerged in often feisty discussion. Both sessions have gotten extensive media and internet coverage.

4 for FreeholderThe first session involved the 4 candidates (two Democratic incumbents & 2 Republican challengers) for the two open positions on the 7-member Bergen County Board of Freeholders (the county legislature). Then, an overflow audience attended a second spirited session featuring the two candidates for County Executive, incumbent Republican Kathleen Donovan and Democratic Freeholder James Tedesco. BGR, Inc is extraordinarily appreciative to the candidates for their participation and are grateful about the information about candidate views that emerged.  

BGR, Inc. is currently building two new pages on our website where 3-6 minute video “issue” segments from each of these 2 forums can be watched. The goal is to allow you to see the candidates discuss/debaboth T and Dte 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 . The second one provides you with access to forum video segments that with a click allow you to watch and hear what the two County Executive candidates said about the County’s issues. Please click here.  BGR has not yet made a decision as to whether to, and if so which, county candidate(s) it may, endorse in these two races.        

What about the 5th and 9th NJ Congressional District Races? The Fifth first: BGR in cooperation with the Bergen County NAACP, had hoped to sponsor a Q&A session for the three candidates for the 5th Congressional District seat on October 23rd – again at the Teaneck Library. That was a date when the calendars of all three candidates appeared free . We have worked very hard to get commitments to participate from the three candidates (incumbent Republican Scott Garrett, Democrat Roy Cho, and Independent Mark Quick) because we were concerned that this District’s citizens might not be provided a forum of the sort we believe is so important .  We quickly had agreements to participate from two of the 5th District candidates (though Democrat Roy Cho expressed real concern that he not have to participate in a forum when the incumbent’s chair is empty (See inset box). congressional appearancesOur certified letters, phone calls and emails to the Garrett campaign yielded no response whatsoever from the incumbent for days on end.  We finally did receive a one line email response late on Oct 14 from an official (a Mr. Glenn Wenzel) writing from the Congressman’s campaign web address. It said “Unfortunately we will not be able to participate this year” and offered no alternative date.  It has become clear that BGR is one of many institutions which tried to provide a setting in which 5th District voters here in Bergen were given an  opportunity to see their congressional candidates in dialogue with each other and with them. Watch here for a BGR’s statement about this race and the lack of candidate transparency for voters that is the result of this lack of election season discourse. The 9th? Note that the two major party candidates in the 9th NJ Congressional district have a session scheduled for October 27 (see blue text box)

Municipal Transparency in November: On November 6, BGR will conduct the second in a series of efforts to explore how well – and through what kinds of innovations – some municipal governments in Bergen County are working to operate more transparently and on what issues transparency matters most to Bergen citizens. In August BGR began an exploration of how different governments (both county and municipal) are doing in making information available to their citizens. A major initial focus was the Monmouth College study which rated each municipal website in the state. But websites are only part of the story. The State itself now has a municipal “best practices” list and many of those practices focus on open process and governmental visibility. BGR will be seeking to bring to this meeting public officials and advocates who will describe their experiments and ideas for how best to make these openness processes work. If yoyu know an innovator on municipal transparency – either a pbloic officiao or a transparency activist) who we should contact to inform us, drop me an email at: president@bergengrassroots.org  (Alsok, see discussion of BGR';s earlier municipal transparency work by scrollinbg down to post 11 below and  Click here on Tuesday October 21  to find out where we are on the issue and who you would suggest that we contact

Byron Baer Award in December– This award is annually given to someone who has made a material difference in carrying out for today the commitments and legislative achievements (including the NJ open public meetings act that bears the name of Byron Baer) We are actively seeking input of BGR participants and readers of this website as to who should be the 2014 awardee. Click here on Monday October 20 to find out more about Byron Baer and how you can, before November 1 make nominations to the BGR Steering Committee that will ultimately select the 2014 Byron Baer awardee please click here. Award night will be Thursday, December 11 and will also provide us a chance to review this Bergen Grassroots year and anticipate the holiday season and a new year – and we will seek your input for what should be the 2015 BGR foci.

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