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[CityEthics] A Citizen Transparency Initiative

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A Cure for Transparency Problems: A Model Website and Blog
By Robert Wechsler
Created 2008-03-24 10:38

An essential problem in many local governments is a lack of transparency. When people do not know what is happening, and access to information is very difficult, democracy is undermined in several ways. Reformers have a difficult time showing what is actually happening or preparing for public meetings and public hearings. Newspapers are dependent on what officials say. Ordinary citizens become indifferent or completely turned off when all news is of the he said-she said variety.

Where there is little transparency, there is usually a reason to keep things hidden. One reason is that it’s easier to govern when citizens don’t bother you. But the other principal reason is that there is unethical and criminal activity going on, just as more stealing goes on at night. At its heart, transparency is just another ethics issue: putting personal interests ahead of the public interest.

That is why a big project for me last year was creating a model (but actual working) website and blog as a response to serious transparency problems in my town.

In my town of 23,000, meeting agendas and minutes were not available. Meetings were inadequately or improperly noticed. Public comment sections of meetings were not televised. The town website did not even contain the town charter and ordinances. The town budget was only made available during the workday a few days before hearings and a referendum on the budget, and only in print, so that citizens were not prepared to ask questions.

This would be a serious problem in any town, but my town has a New England town meeting form of government. That means that there is only one legislative body in town: the town’s citizens. If they are not informed, they cannot make intelligent decisions. This is the third principal reason why there was so little transparency in my town.

To change this, I took over a website [2] and started a blog [3]. From the beginning, one of my goals was to create a model for other towns to use. By means of a website and blog, one person (in my case) or a small number of people can make an enormous difference to a town’s political atmosphere and ethical environment. Not only did it open up town government, but it was central to the election of a new administration devoted to transparency and government ethics.

My website and blog were nonpartisan, with no relation to any organization. But they could just as well be the work of an opposition party (major or minor), a civic organization such as a League of Women Voters, or a citizens organization such as a taxpayers or good government group. Such a website and blog could even be the kernel of a new citizens organization, providing a concrete project to get people working together to improve the town.

The website was purchased as a package deal, with easy-to-use software, and does not cost very much. There are many providers for websites, including most internet access providers. The blog, which is linked to the website, is free (mine is from Google, but there are other free blog providers, as well).

Just by my asking for a copy of the town budget to put up on the website, the town government finally put the budget up on its website. That is how immediately effective a website can be for transparency. Sometimes just the fact of a website, the shame it brings and the fear that the administration will lose control over government information, is enough to lead to major changes in transparency.

I also put up on the website the town ordinances and charter, meeting minutes (the town refused to fax or email me meeting agendas), the materials handed out to members of the Board of Finance, links to campaign contribution information, personnel policies, basic information about the town’s form of government, and property revaluation information. Most important, and what took the most work, on the website’s homepage I kept the town’s only complete meeting schedule (the calendar at the Clerk’s office was incomplete and only accessible during the workday), and a running list of what was new on the website and blog (which serves now as a history of the formation of the website and blog).

Soon after I started the website, two of the town’s department heads were arrested for embezzlement of public funds and conspiracy to embezzle. No surprise to those of us calling for sunshine in order to prevent corruption. I put up on the website the arrest warrants, and pointed out what town officials knew about the alleged embezzlement, according to the arrest warrant affidavits.

The blog was intended to get a conversation going about town government. It was also intended to provide a different sort of information to town residents, that is, information intended to allow them to understand what was happening in town government. Since it was budget time when I began the blog, the budget was the principal topic at first. Then came the arrests and the attempt to do a forensic audit to see what damage had been done to the town.

But I also used the blog to discuss a variety of more abstract matters, such as transparency, ethics, respect for citizens, good faith and bad faith, citizen involvement, and procurement practices.

The principal difficulty with a blog such as this is moderating it, that is, checking each comment before it is posted. This can take a lot of time if the discussion is active. If you don’t moderate it, then the blog can get very controversial, due to language, personal attacks, etc. And this sort of controversy will put people off and legitimate attacks on the blog.

The most interesting and successful further use of the website and blog was to create an unusual on-line petition and to get people to not only sign it, but to provide personal comments. Not only was there a link to the petition on the website, but I emailed a link to a number of interested people, asking them to forward the link on to people they knew. News spread quickly.

The subject of the petition was an explanation of why the town voted down the first budget presented to it. With an all-or-nothing vote, the Board of Finance can argue about what people intended when they rejected the budget. The petition made it very clear why the budget was voted down. Although the Board of Finance ignored the petition publicly, its second budget included nearly all of the petition’s demands, mostly focused on honest numbers (another transparency problem in my town). The petition can be found in a link on this page [4] of the blog.

Sadly, after the new administration took office, with almost no transitional cooperation from the outgoing administration, the old guard filled the blog and letters to the editor columns with vitriol, trying to turn every molehill into a mountain. It scared people off from the blog, and forced me to spend too much time responding to baseless attacks. So I closed down the blog. But it remains there as an example of how a blog like this works.

If your town or city has a transparency problem, consider starting a website and/or blog to combat it. If you would like to discuss the matter further, please don’t hesitate to contact me:

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research-Retired, City Ethics

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Click here to read this blog entry as it appeared on [1]