Policy group says 4 metro-east counties violate open government laws

News-DemocratSeptember 7, 2013 

Only two county governments in the metro-east passed an online review from an independent group seeking more openness in governance to prevent corruption.

Madison County scored sixth best in the state and St. Clair County scored 12th, according to the Illinois Policy Institute, which reviewed information posted on county websites across the state.

Just 12 counties in the state received a passing grade for online transparency from the Illinois Policy Institute. On the other end of the spectrum, five counties in the metro-east received some of the worst scores in the state and four were allegedly found to be in violation of state laws.

The Illinois Policy Institute found 90 of the 102 counties in Illinois to be below the group's expectations. And the group believes at least 27 counties violated state laws intended to ensure basic information was available to the public about the largest government agencies in most areas.

Online transparency of government actions is the public's greatest tool to foster government accountability and fight corruption, according to Brian Costin of the Illinois Policy Institute, which bills itself as a nonpartisan research and education organization based in Springfield and Chicago.

"We want the average citizen to be able to participate in government, especially in an educated manner," Costin said. "It is also a corruption fighter. The more public business with light shed on it the less likely it is someone will engage in corruption and more likely watchdog groups will be able to find corruption when it is occurring. Taxpayers deserve to know how their tax dollars are spent."

Locally, the Institute believes Clinton, Bond, Randolph and Washington counties were not compliant with state laws. Officials with Bond and Randolph could not be reached for comment.

Clinton County State's Attorney John Hudspeth said county employees are working to "immediately cure the Institute's constructive criticism." County employees are working to become compliant with state law by posting compensation for high-earning employees and how to file a Freedom of Information Act request.

"We are taking this in a positive direction to initiate what this policy group seeks," Hudspeth said. "We will move forward and increase information available to the public. I don't pretend we are going to get to the level of Kane County (which received a perfect score) but we will do better."

Washington County Clerk Thomas Ganz said county employees do not have the expertise or knowledge of state laws to ensure required documents are posted online.

"We just don't have the capability of doing that," Ganz said of his three-person staff. "We don't have anybody in the courthouse qualified to develop the website much less time to keep it updated as far as all the requirements that should be on there."

Group says local counties violated laws

The Policy Institutes believes four metro-east counties were found to be in violation of the state's Sunshine laws, which intend to ensure open governance.

The Policy Institute findings allege:

* Bond and Randolph counties violated the Open Meetings Act by not publishing online required postings for public meetings, such as agendas and minutes from the meetings.

* Bond, Clinton, Randolph and Washington counties violated the Freedom of Information Act by not posting online the county's process for filing a request under the Act or other related information.

* Bond, Clinton, Randolph and Washington counties did not comply with a 2012 state law requiring counties to report online the total compensation for employees making more than $75,000 annually.

Hudspeth said Clinton County staff is working to immediately publish the required information and county officials are meeting to plan more publications soon.

Ganz said the staff of Washington County was not trying to hide information from the public and requests under the Freedom of Information Act are fulfilled by the department heads. "We're the ones who have the answer and we'll supply it for you," he said.

The group says each county was audited twice. The first audit provided a "cheat sheet" describing how the county could meet all of the group's expectations. Then, more than two months later, the Institute audited the counties once more.

Costin said there is an increased need for the public to know how tax dollars are spent in "an era increasingly asking more from local governments."

"We need to treat citizens as if they were a board member and let them have the same amount of access to information as elected officials have," Costin said. "Obviously, things happen in closed meetings and there is the need for some private information but all the regular, public information board members get citizens should get it too. That way people can give feedback to board members. I think transparency is really a no-brainer in this day and age."

How did they score?

Madison County scored the highest of metro-east counties with a score of 82 percent. Scoring an 80 percent on the audit can be achieved by following state law and additionally posting documents produced annually, such as budgets, audits and tax-related information.

The high marks stem from a concentrated effort towards transparency, according to Madison County Administrator Joe Parente.

"We made it a priority a couple years ago to enhance our efforts toward government transparency," Parente said.

St. Clair County received a passing score of about 60 percent. St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern oversees improvements to the county website.

"We take seriously our responsibilities to provide open and transparent government," Kern said in an email. "Since taking office in 2004, we have continually updated and populated the county website with information which we believe the public seeks."

St. Clair County also has designated full-time staff to handle requests under the Freedom of Information Act, according to the county's State's Attorney Brendan Kelly. The county received 133 such requests in 2012 and 143 requests so far in 2013.

"We have assigned Assistant State's Attorney Sean Murley full time to the duty of reviewing Freedom of Information Act requests and assisting other departments working on Open Meetings Act compliance," Kelly said. "It's a lot of work, but making every effort to be transparent is important."

Other metro-east counties scored poorly, according to the group. Monroe County scored about 24 percent, Clinton County scored 17 percent, Randolph County scored 10 percent, Washington County scored about 8 percent and Bond County trailed with a score of 2.5 percent. Statewide, counties with websites averaged a score of 25.7 percent.

While these counties have a smaller population than St. Clair and Madison counties, other counties similar in size passed the transparency audit. For example, Macoupin County with about 47,800 residents scored seventh best in the state with about a 76 percent.

Hudspeth said Clinton County's score was "nothing to brag about" but the common denominator for most low-scoring counties was a small population without an employee dedicated to maintaining the county's website.

"I think it's unfair to compare us to Kane County or St. Clair County," Hudspeth said. "That being said, we should do what we can to promote transparency available to the general public. Taxpayers have a right to know what's going on." Kane County near Chicago has a population of about 520,000 residents and St. Clair County has about 268,000 residents.

Monroe County Coordinator Linda Lehr said that county's score should have been higher because some of the information sought by the Institute was included within budgets and minutes already posted online.

"We do what we know and understand to be compliant with state law," Lehr said. "Things over and above that we try to enhance the website as we go forward, but we don't have an on-site person as a county employee. We do it as needed to be compliant but it's not our main job. So folks doing the website posting for Monroe County is one of the many duties and tasks they have."

What's the cost?

Lehr said Monroe County is "far more transparent" than others. She believes the issue needs to be put in perspective of shrinking budgets and fewer employees.

"We here in downstate Illinois go about our daily business serving the needs of citizens and then the Policy Institute in Chicago gives you this report slapping you on the hand because you are not doing what they like," Lehr said. "I think they do have some validity to the report but we need to temper that with realism of what's going on with small counties."

The Institute estimates it would cost $100 and less than a day to set up a website able to post documents online required by state law.

Parente said Madison County staff made it a priority to minimize cost and time devoted to updating the website. For example, posting an expense report from the auditor's office takes about 15 minutes.

"It has very minimal cost and effort to maintain it," Parente said. "Once we built the system it was just a matter of updating it."

Hudspeth said Clinton County does not employ any employees solely devoted to computer support or website maintenance.

"If we are going to be required by the state to comply with the suggestions of the Public Policy Institute in their outline, I don't think it's fair to take us to task without some funding or assistance," Hudspeth said. "This is a private organization which is saying units of county governments should be making all these documents available electronically. With the dollar shrinking as it is, that's difficult to do."

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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