Transparency at the County Level in Iowa

by Jennifer L. Crull

 

Each month Public Interest Institute focuses on an issue pertaining to transparency and specifically tries to focus on Iowa issues. In December of 2014, we reported on the status of the state of Iowa’s specially developed transparency Website. We were glad to report that Iowa was officially at an “A-.” This month we are looking at the issue of transparency in relationship to the county Websites and how well they are disseminating information by electronic form.

In this month’s issue of the IOWA TRANSPARENCY NEWSLETTER, we are reporting on the project Ballotpedia.org has done with all 99 counties in Iowa. The table included in this month’s newsletter features all 99 counties and the rating each county received for the transparency of their Website. The criteria were outlined on a “transparency checklist.”[1] The Ballotpedia Website talks about how taxpayers should be able to tell from their county’s Website if the county government is effective, competent, frugal with tax dollars, and in compliance with all expectations and relevant laws about public records and open meeting laws.[2]

The ten areas they look at are budget, county government meetings/agendas, elected officials and elections, administrative officials, building permits and zoning, audits, contracts, lobbying/advocacy, local taxes, and access to government records and public documents.[3] The following are the main categories Ballotpedia is looking at when they examine a Website:

Budget - The county website should include comprehensive budget information.
County government meetings/agendas - The county’s website should disclose all county government meetings and agendas.
Elected officials and elections - The county’s website should disclose key information about the county’s elected officials.
Administrative officials - The county’s website should disclose key information about the county’s appointed administrators such as their names, titles, and contact information, including phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
Building permits and zoning - The building permit and zoning applications should be available for download online. In addition, constituents should be able to submit applications and track the process online.
Audits (financial/performance) - If the county conducts financial and management audits to ensure that it is operating in accordance with the highest standards of financial and management competence and integrity, theses audits should be available on the website.
Contracts - The county’s website should provide comprehensive information about the contracts it enters into with vendors.
Lobbying/advocacy - If the unit of government belongs to any government sector lobbying associations that it helps to fund by paying association or membership dues, that information should be disclosed on the government agency’s website.
Local taxes - The website should include a central location for all tax information, including state fees such as drivers’ licenses, tax documents for all elected officials, and each agency’s sources of revenue.
Public records - The website should include the name of the person who is in charge of fulfilling open records requests, along with contact information.[4]

As you can see from the table, we have a couple counties that have worked hard to increase transparency at the county level such as Johnson and Scott Counties, but we have many counties that have a long way to go to increase transparency at the county level.

Given that our state has risen to an “A-,” how can we have such low scores for our county governments? I think that it is time for our counties to focus on increasing access to information, especially since this is the level of government that people interact with the most. I would encourage everyone to take the time to visit Ballotpedia.org and check the transparency score for government agencies in your area.

(Endnotes)
[1] County Websites, Ballotpedia, <http://ballotpedia.org/County_websites> accessed on May 15, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid. and Transparency checklist, Ballotpedia, <http://ballotpedia.org/Transparency_checklist> accessed on May 15, 2015.

IOWA TRANSPARENCY NEWSLETTER is a monthly newsletter reporting on government transparency in our state.

IOWA TRANSPARENCY NEWSLETTER is published by Public Interest Institute at Iowa Wesleyan College, a nonpartisan, nonprofit, research and educational institute whose activities are supported by contributions from private individuals, corporations, companies, and foundations. The Institute does not accept government grants.

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The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute.

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