Campbell: City Web sites are not clear windows into open government
Simple enough • Even small towns can't blame technology hurdles.
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Utahns may wonder what grade their local government should earn for transparency. A conservative think tank decided one way to find out was to evaluate city websites and investigate obscure boards. Their findings and recommendations are worth a look.

What researchers from the Sutherland Institute found was that Utah's cities earn no more than a "C-" average grade, and 17 cities ­— most of them small ones — earned a failing grade for their Web transparency. They also recommend eliminating some unnecessary boards.

Derek Monson, a policy manager at the Sutherland Institute, used 10 criteria to judge the quality and accessibility of public information on city websites. Those include information about taxes and budgets, contacts for city leaders, city council meeting minutes, audits, contracts, building permits and directions on how to request public information.

Monson and other reviewers spent about 20 minutes on each of 111 city websites. The reason: They figure if citizens can't find important information within 20 minutes, they won't continue digging for it. Monson wants cities to put his 10 items of information front and center on websites. His rule of "three clicks and you're out" is a good policy idea.

Monson noted a correlation between a city's sales tax revenue and the quality of its website. Not surprisingly, Utah's largest and most well-heeled cities fared the best. While no city earned a perfect "A," Salt Lake City, Provo, West Jordan, Sandy, Taylorsville, Park City, Ogden, Draper and Riverton all scored a 9 or 8.5 out of a possible 10 points, earning an "A-."

The failing list includes Grantsville, Genola, Coalville, Lewiston, Monticello, Morgan, Myton, Leeds, Fairview, Honeyville, Salina, Harrisville, Nephi, Hyrum and West Point. At the bottom of the list, Hanksville and Gunnison earned a half-point because those cities at least had contact information for city officials online, but failed to meet the other nine criteria.

Money may make it hard to reach the Web-disclosure goal, but even so, the smallest town should be able to post budgets, audits, financial reports and city council minutes. Even most high school students now know how to do such simple Web-posting tasks.

In addition to websites, the institute has also been checking up on boards whose members are most often appointed by elected officials. Many of these 1,600 state and local government boards remain obscure but can have a huge impact on Utahns' lives. Matthew Piccolo, a Sutherland policy analyst, argues that more transparency is required to prevent board members from putting personal interests above public ones.

These boards range from the state Elk Advisory Council to the American Fork Skate Park Board to the Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame board in Moab. The institute has posted a database of the boards at www.transparentutah.org.

Piccolo is right in requesting that government eliminate some boards and consolidate others. It's also important that all appointed board members fill out disclosure forms that might point to financial or other conflicts of interest. At the same time, Piccolo suggests boards post annual online reports about their activities.

Joel Campbell is a former reporter and current associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University. His reporting does not necessarily reflect the views of BYU. He writes on First Amendment and open-government issues for The Tribune. He can be reached at foiguy@gmail.com.