Sunshine Week: Audit rates local governing bodies’ websites
DeKALB – DeKalb residents can find plenty of information on the city’s website, including budgets, financial audits and individual expenditures from the past five years.
Mayor John Rey said this is an area the city has been complimented, and a nonprofit research organization has taken note.
The Illinois Policy Institute gave DeKalb’s website a score of 56 out of 100 in October 2012, but noted city leaders had improved publishing information for finances since then. More recently, DeKalb’s website scored 88.8.
“It’s important for citizens in any community to be able to understand where their tax dollars are being used and to have ready access to that type of financial information,” Rey said.
The policy institute, a conservative nonprofit public policy research organization, uses a 10-point checklist to audit the websites of governments in Illinois. The group audited 12 local governments at the Daily Chronicle’s request in honor of Sunshine Week. At least one smaller municipality questioned whether the group’s priorities applied there, but several other local leaders took the suggests to heart.
Sunshine Week, which concludes today, is a national initiative to highlight the importance of governmental transparency.
The policy institute is asking lawmakers to support the Local Government Transparency Act, which would make complying with the institute’s 10-point checklist the law for larger towns in Illinois, said Diana Rickert, director of media relations at the institute. Items on the checklist include whether websites include contact information, budgets, expenditures, contracts and lobbying details, with points possible for each year that information is posted.
Results also depend upon how easily the information can be found, which means that a government site can be marked down if the necessary information is buried on their site.
Results of the audits showed that government bodies that had never been audited – including Genoa, Sycamore, Cortland, Malta and some local school and park districts – all received fewer than 50 points out of 100; those that had been audited in the past received better scores.
Another audit will be performed Wednesday for those local governments that just received their first audit, so each government will be able to improve its score.
The city of DeKalb, which the institute has audited before, got the highest score with 88.8. The municipality that received the lowest score, with 10.9 out of 100, was the village of Malta.
Malta comptroller Debbie Lang said the results do not accurately describe the village’s website, which includes more information than larger municipalities in DeKalb County, she said. Areas such as lobbying and contracts are not always applicable to a small community like Malta, she said.
“We will take this ratings report into consideration and work to improve our score in the future where we can,” Lang said.
Ray Ochromowicz, DeKalb Park District interim executive director, welcomed the audit results even though the park district only scored 33.2 out of 100, slightly higher than Sycamore Park District’s score of 29.2 out of 100.
The DeKalb Park District is in the process of reviewing the score they received and changing its website accordingly, Ochromowicz said.
“I look at a complaint as a good thing,” he said. “Somebody is telling us how they could be more satisfied or better served. Getting audited is a good thing.”
Local school superintendents said they will also could tweak their websites in light of audit recommendations. Kathy Countryman, superintendent for Sycamore School District 427, said the district put a new website in place this year and that the audit will help improve the website even further.
District 427 received the lowest score of the three school districts audited with 29 out of 100. DeKalb School District 428 received 43.2 out of 100, and Genoa School District 424 earned 30.1 out of 100.
“We have been tweaking and looking at how [our website] has been servicing our public in regard to communication and transparency all year, so this comes at a good time for us,” Countryman said. “We can look at what areas were deemed we needed more information in and implement those as necessary.”
Joe Burgess, Genoa-Kingston School District 424 superintendent, said it seemed his district was penalized for not including historical data.
District 424 officials plan to update the website this summer and use the rubric to address areas with low scores. The district will try to make the website easier to navigate to find information, Burgess said.
“This didn’t come at a bad time. We’re always looking to improve,” he said. “There’s nothing glaring to me we can’t adjust. Hopefully we’ll do better next time.”
Sycamore City Manager Brian Gregory said the city will request a proposal to redesign its website after May 1, the end of the fiscal year, in order to make the website more navigable.
Sycamore’s website provides a variety of information, from contact information to economic development information, Gregory said.
“We try to put as much information out as we can,” he said.
The Illinois Policy Institute audited the websites for 12 local governments by using their 10-point checklist.
DeKalb County 72.1
DeKalb Park District 33.2
Sycamore Park District 29.2
DeKalb Township 73.1
DeKalb School District 428 43.2
Sycamore School District 427 29.0
Genoa-Kingston School District 424 30.1
For more information
To view the full findings, visit http://shawurl.com/12hj.
What is scored
The Illinois Policy Institute’s 10-point checklist looks at whether municipalities have information on their websites regarding:
1. Contact information
3. The Freedom of Information Act
Illinois Policy Institute has audited the city of DeKalb, DeKalb Township and DeKalb County before. These were their scores:
DeKalb County: 60.9 in June 2013, 72.1 in March 2014, Improve 11.2
DeKalb Township: 70.9 in January 2013, 73.1 in March 2014, Improve 2.2
City of DeKalb: 56.0 in October 2012, 88.8 in March 2014, Improve 32.8