Saturday, July 22, 2017

[Marin County] Marin IJ Editorial: Grand jury nudges agencies to open their doors

There are quite a few take-aways from the 2016-17 Marin County Civil Grand Jury’s report on governmental transparency.
First, the grand jury has counted 130 separate public agencies — large and tiny — across the county, from the Marin Board of Supervisors to local neighborhood-improvement districts.
Second, the report follows up on the hard work of the 2015-16 grand jury, which graded the websites of these agencies, A to F, and sadly found too many deserved D’s and F’s. Too many public agency websites lacked vital public information such as up-to-date detailed budgets, the terms of elected board members and payroll data, according to the jury’s Consumers Report-type review.
Third, the 2015-16 report’s grades and recommendations made a big difference, compelling, if not shaming, some agencies to dramatically improve their web presence.
The latest report details the progress made by many public agencies, but also turns up the public heat on those that need improvement.
These are assessments presented by the 19-member grand jury, an annual panel of civic-minded residents whose agenda is to improve public service. If the 2015-16 grand jury hadn’t raised these issues, it is doubtful, unfortunately, that many agencies would have made those improvements.
All too often, some agencies tend to treat public information as “for their eyes only” budget numbers, reports or payroll figures. Sometimes, they forget for whom they work and serve. Or they assume the approach: If the public doesn’t ask for it, it doesn’t need it.
The 2015-16 grand jury report corrected that assumption. The 2016-17 grand jury drove it home with its follow-up.
As it put it in its report, “A transparent website allows for more efficient interaction between the agency and the public and signals that the agency has nothing to hide from the public.”
In addition, with many agencies having reduced their office hours as a result of budget cuts, posting pertinent information online is even more important.
In response, many agencies made significant improvements. Some — such as the Marin Emergency Radio Authority, the Bel Marin Keys Community Services District, the Novato Fire Protection District and the Novato Sanitary District — went from F to an A.
The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District, for instance, went from a C-minus to an A-minus.
The county government — and many of its iterations such as the flood control district and tiny community agencies — still have a lot of work to do to meet the grand jury’s standards.
Some others continue to lag. The grand jury found there is room for improvement in the online information and services provided by many agencies, among them the Marin City Community Services District, the Marin Healthcare District, the Richardson Bay Sanitary District and the Strawberry Recreation District.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of posting minutes, budgets and contracts.
Neither grand jury reviewed the wide variation of details provided in different agency’s minutes — from nearly useless outlines to verbose accounts — but maybe the next grand jury can take up that task.
The 2016-17 grand jury’s follow-up report is an important reminder to Marin public agencies that their websites should, at least, meet a uniform public standard. That so many have responded positively is an example that improvements can be made if agency leadership believes it is a priority.
The fact that there is still room for improvement should compel the 2017-18 grand jurors to continue to focus on this issue.
July 8, 2017
Marin Independent Journal

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