Group rates Belleville's website as above average

News-DemocratMarch 21, 2014 

— The Illinois Policy Institute has given Belleville an above-average score for government transparency based on the city's website.

The city scored 84.8 percent and will receive the institute's Sunshine Award this year for the first time.

The institute recognizes cities that score 80 percent or more on an annual online transparency audit.

Cities earn higher scores by posting items required by the institute's 10-Point Transparency Checklist such as meeting minutes, financial reports and information on salaries and contracts.

Results surface during Sunshine Week, a national campaign in March recognizing the importance of open government.

Earlier this month, Brian Costin, director of government reform at the institute, informed Belleville of its initial score of 35.8 and gave the city two weeks to make improvements.

Other cities had the same opportunity to improve their score. The village of Lombard ended with a perfect score while cities such as Moline and Normal failed the audits.

Belleville was the only metro-east city scored on the institute's website, which has information on the state's 50 largest cities. The institute plans to finish evaluating the 100 largest cities in Illinois this year.

Costin said he worked with Sharon Strausbaugh, the city's marketing manager and website administrator, and Jamie Maitret, the city's finance director, to improve Belleville's site, such as making budget and audit information "searchable."

In general, Costin said the institute prefers cities to make documents searchable so residents can easily find what they need. And, the institute wants cities to post all records -- from meeting minutes to bids and contracts -- going back at least five years.

The city can also better its score by posting employees' salaries and benefits.

City Clerk Dallas Cook, the city's record keeper, said he plans to talk to Mayor Mark Eckert on how to balance releasing this public information in a way that is respectful to city employees.

Cook and Eckert both said city staff have been working hard to make documents available to residents online. They also expect the city's score to continue to rise.

But, while Cook said the good score is a result of his and other independents' push for more transparency in the April election, Eckert said his administration made a conscious decision to upgrade the website two years ago.

Cook said the city's website has more information on it than ever before, a "huge improvement" from a year ago when the city scored a 50.2 percent on the institute's audit.

"This time last year, during my campaign, Belleville's score was an F," Cook said. "That's why elections and independents are good ... This is a positive that comes out of all the negative that came up during the election."

Cook said the city isn't hiding anything but probably overlooked updating information online.

Eckert said he didn't use "transparency" as a buzz word during his campaign, but his staff used the 10-Point checklist in updating the website.

"The effort to improve transparency didn't start May 1," Eckert said, referring to the day Cook was sworn into office.

Indeed, the City Council voted in August 2012 to hire CivicPlus to redesign the city's website. The new site, www.belleville.net, launched about August 2013, after Eckert won re-election for a third full term.

Eckert said such efforts did not stop his opponents in the April 2013 election from criticizing him for needing to hire another assistant so Strausbaugh could focus on managing the more robust website.

Eckert said it only makes sense to dedicate manpower to make the site the best it can be if the city is going to spend money revamping the website.

Cook campaigned on making public information available to residents without requiring Freedom of Information Act forms and having monthly meetings with residents to answer questions.

Some residents applaud Cook's quick response to public requests while others criticize him for releasing information too freely.

To date, Cook has not held town hall-style meetings as promised. Cook said he plans on having his first meeting in the next few months to teach residents about WebQA, a new records system he will use to better manage public information requests.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 618-239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDJLee.

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