US Public Interest Research Group releases report on special district transparency

According to USPIRG:

Citizens’ ability to understand how their tax dollars are spent is fundamental to democracy. Budget and spending transparency holds government officials accountable for making smart decisions, checks corruption, and provides citizens an opportunity to affect how government dollars are spent.

“Special districts” are a type of government agency that exist outside of traditional forms of general purpose local or state governments, and serve key governmental functions such as public transit or housing. However, special districts are poorly understood by the public and often do business without adhering to modern standards of government budget or spending transparency. The lack of transparency and accountability of many special districts has caused concern among some state agencies and government watchdogs, as it can contribute to an atmosphere conducive to lowered efficiency and potential misconduct. 

A review of 79 special districts’ online financial transparency shows that while a few districts are meeting the goals of “Transparency 2.0” – a standard of comprehensive, one-stop, oneclick budget accountability and accessibility – the vast majority do little to inform citizens about how they spend money. To empower and engage the public, enable citizen oversight of all branches of government, and improve the efficiency with which they operate, special districts, along with local and state governments, should expand the amount and improve the quality of spending data that are made available to the public online.

Read the report

Watchdog group publishes public audit of Enterprise Systems

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been conducting a public audit of special districts, cities, and counties and whether they are complying with SB 272, which requires all agencies to publish a catalog listing any non-exempt computer systems in use. Volunteers for the EFF searched for organizations’ websites and attempted to locate the catalog. They also published a list of cities and counties that did not comply. 

You can read the article here: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2016/08/transparency-advocates-collect-more-400-database-catalogs

Agencies need to be sure to post a link to their Enterprise System catalog on the website (if they have one) in a prominent location. Agencies that haven't yet published a catalog should check out our free tool.

Illinois considering website transparency requirement for local government

House Bill 5522, a bill that has passed the House and is currently being considered in the Senate, could require all Illinois local governments (cities, counties and townships, special districts and school districts) with a budget over $1M to have a website, and post fourteen different types of transparency-related information to the site. If the bill passes in its current form, agencies won’t be eligible for reimbursement from the state.

In addition to the specific requirements of this bill, agencies will of course still need to comply with existing regulations like Section 508 compliance and agenda posting deadlines. (Learn more about Illinois requirements on the Illinois Policy site.)

There is some good news, however: another bill, House Bill 6092, could save local governments money by allowing them to post required notices on their websites instead of in the newspaper.

Transparency in government is a good thing, but not when it wastes taxpayer dollars or places an undue financial or time burden on the agencies that are required to comply with mandates. That's why Streamline was created–to making having a website affordable, and to make it easy to maintain the content that helps agencies stay in compliance.

We host free webinars on Streamline Website Builder–feel free to sign up for one, or contact us to learn more. 


synopsis of HB 5522 as introduced:

Amends the Open Meetings Act. Requires a unit of local government or school district with an operating budget of $1 million or more to maintain an Internet website and post to that website, for the current calendar or fiscal year, the following information: (1) information about elected and appointed officials; (2) notice of and materials prepared for meetings; (3) procedures for requesting information from the unit of local government or school district; (4) annual budget; (5) ordinances; (6) procedures to apply for building permits and zoning variances; (7) financial reports and audits; (8) information concerning employee compensation; (9) contracts with lobbying firms; (10) taxes and fees imposed by the unit of local government or school district; (11) rules governing the award of contracts; (12) bids and contracts worth $25,000 or more; (13) a debt disclosure report; and (14) public notices. Provides that any citizen who is a resident of the unit of local government or school district may bring a mandamus or injunction action to compel the unit of local government or school district to comply with the Internet posting requirements. Limits home rule powers. Amends the State Mandates Act to require implementation without reimbursement. Amends the Freedom of Information Act. Provides for a statutory exemption for any electronic copy of a record or information maintained on specified websites. Amends the Department of Central Management Services Law of the Civil Administrative Code of Illinois to make conforming changes. Amends the Notice By Publication Act. Provides that whenever an officer of a court, unit of local government, or school district is required to provide notice by publication in a newspaper, publishing website address to the document will be sufficient. Effective immediately.

Marin County Grand Jury releases Web Transparency Report Card

Today, the Marin County Grand Jury gave many local government agencies a painful report card when it comes to online transparency.

According to the report, 126 local agencies were audited: 12 municipalities, 19 school districts, 64 special districts, 30 joint powers authorities (JPAs), and 1 rail district.

59 local agencies improved their websites, and 34 received a grade of B- or better.
27 local agencies have no website: 19 special districts and 8 joint powers authorities (JPAs).

(Note: of the 19 special districts mentioned, many are County Service Area agencies, or other non-special district organizations.)

In the report, Streamline Web was mentioned as an effective, inexpensive website solution for local agencies. We know managing a website hasn't always been an easy task, and we're committed to making it easy (and even fun!) to be transparent online. 

See the full report here. 

Streamline builds SB 272 Compliance Tool

In mid-2015 when the team at Streamline first learned of the coming law, they immediately started brainstorming ways to help local agencies comply with the requirements. Because the law can be confusing, there appeared to be a lot of room for a technical solution to guide them through the steps needed to help each agency determine what needed to be in the catalog.

From that initial commitment to assist, a tool has developed that helps agencies step through all the "enterprise systems" they may have, and answer yes or no questions about each that help them determine what needs to be stored in the catalog and what does not.

In addition, it can optionally save a record of any non-reportable systems, so when the agency updates the catalog each year there is a record of the work that has already been done.

Other features include reminders to help agencies keep the catalog updated, and tools that allow agencies to print the catalog, post the catalog on a standalone webpage, embed the catalog in their own site, or email the catalog to whomever may ask for it.

The overarching goal of this project is to help agencies comply before the July 1, 2015 deadline, without placing unnecessary burden on the staff at each agency.

For more information, contact the Streamline team.

California Senate Bill 272 updates California Public Records Act with new mandate

SB-272, Section 6270.5 of The California Public Records Act: local agencies: inventory.

SB 272 requires local agencies (excluding school districts) to create catalogs of all enterprise systems that store information about the public, and to post this catalog on their websites, if they have websites. If they do not have a website, they are required to publish the catalog in a way that can be provided to anyone who asks. This law applies to all California special districts, cities and counties, and compliance is required by July 1, 2016.

Governor Brown approved SB 272 in October 2015, adding section 6270.5 to the California Public Records Act (the “Act,” Government Code Sections 6250-6276.48). Because it was added to the Public Records Act, local agencies will not be able to seek reimbursement from the State for costs associated with compliance.

What is covered by SB 272?

Section 6270.5 defines an enterprise system as a software application or computer system that collects, stores, exchanges, and analyzes information that the agency uses that is:

  1. a multidepartmental system or system that contains information collected about the public and
  2. a system of record

A system of record means a system that serves as an original source of data within an agency. 

SB 272 requires local agencies to create a catalog of multidepartmental systems or systems containing information about the public that store original records and post the catalog on their agency website.

What is excluded?

Enterprise systems do not include cybersecurity systems, infrastructure and mechanical control systems, or information that would reveal vulnerabilities to, or otherwise increase the potential for an attack on, a public agency's IT system.
Additionally, section 6270.5 does not automatically require disclosure of the specific records that the IT systems collect, store, exchange or analyze, however, the Act's other provisions pertaining to disclosure of such records still apply.

What is required in the catalog?

For each enterprise system included in the catalog list, agencies must disclose:

  • Current system vendor
  • Current system product
  • The purpose of the system
  • What kind of data is stored in it
  • The department that serves as the system's primary custodian
  • How frequently system data is collected
  • How frequently system data is updated

For the full text of the bill, see https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160SB272

 

Streamline web not affected by California Attorney General opinion

Streamline web clients not only enjoy full support, but also 99.9% uptime on their hosting. So this issue doesn't affect our clients much, but we're still in full support of the outcome and appreciative of CSDA for standing for common sense in this area.

The Attorney General (“AG”) issued an opinion related to the Brown Act requirement that local agencies must post meeting agendas on their websites. The AG concluded that minor technical difficulties preventing the agenda from being accessible on the website would not ordinarily prevent an agency from holding a meeting so long as the agency was otherwise in “substantial compliance” with the agenda posting requirements. 

State law requires that a local agency, “[a]t least 72 hours before a regular meeting,” post the meeting agenda “on the local agency’s Internet Web site, if the local agency has one.” What this statute does not directly address is what should happen if the agency’s website experiences a technical issue temporarily preventing the agenda from being available on the local agency’s website. 

Read the CSDA article for more information, or see the full opinion.