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Beyond the basics: Details, documents sometimes elusive on local government websites

Andy Schotz, The Frederick News-Post

If you need to find your local government office in Maryland, there’s a good chance the address is on the web.
But if you want to know when the office is open, the answer might be trickier to find online. Journalists reviewing local government websites for a new Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association study found that basic detail less than 60 percent of the time.

Other information not guaranteed to be publicly posted by a local government includes meeting dates, agendas and current budgets.

Out of 156 town, city and county government working websites examined as part of an MDDC project, fewer than half posted bidding notices. Only nine offered a list of vendors that do business with the government body.

The study was done in February and March to coincide with Sunshine Week, an annual national focus on government openness in public meetings and public information. Sunshine Week, which is organized by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, runs March 12 to 18.

The MDDC analysis of government websites — with the help of journalists across Maryland — showed that even basic information can be either missing or elusive.

That’s especially true in 23 municipalities without a local government website, as well as Capitol Heights in Prince George’s County, where the municipal website has been suspended, and North Chevy Chase in Montgomery County, which also has a website that doesn't work.

Statistics

In a review of 181 jurisdictions in Maryland, the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association and its members found that 156 jurisdictions had websites and 25 did not, according to links on the Maryland Manual and web searches.

The 25 included a site for Capitol Heights in Prince George’s County that exists but is inactive and one for North Chevy Chase in Montgomery County that also wasn’t working. The town of Accident in Garrett County is counted as having an active website, but the site went down this past week.

Of the 156 government websites:

  • 144 listed a government office address
  • 89 listed office hours
  • 154 listed contact info for a government office
  • 154 listed elected officials
  • 117 listed contact info for elected officials
  • 138 listed meeting dates
  • 114 had agendas posted
  • 124 had minutes posted
  • 101 had a current budget posted
  • 75 had public notices posted
  • 69 had bid notices for contracts posted
  • 34 listed bids that were awarded
  • 9 had a vendor list posted
  • 43 detailed how to do business with the government

On average, a Maryland local government with a working website provided information in 8.6 of the 14 categories measured in the study.

A breakdown by population, using 2010 Census figures:

  • For 21 places with a population of 50,000 or more, the average number of elements per site was 11.6
  • For 24 places of 10,000 to 49,999, the average was 10.9
  • For 70 places of 1,000 to 9,999, the average was 8.3
  • For 41 places with fewer than 1,000 resident that had websites, the average was 6.6

Of the 25 places without websites, 20 had fewer than 1,000 residents. Every place with at least 5,000 residents had a website.

— Compiled by Jeremy Cox,
The Daily Times

Maryland’s local government websites illustrate a range of resources and philosophies about sharing information. Larger governments might have an information technology department to do the work. Smaller ones might rely on one person to maintain a site from home in his or her spare time.

Several sites were little more than a one-page bulletin board with phone numbers or email addresses.

At the other extreme of transparency and information flow are municipalities with a full menu of meetings agendas and minutes, detailed budgets going back several years, bid proposals current and past, and much more.

Only two websites met the study’s checklist for all 14 categories — Garrett County and Laurel in Prince George’s County.

Garrett County did a major redesign of its website in 2012 and 2013, said Andrew Sauder, a software developer for the county.

Before then, information was linked to the department that generated or maintained it.
But while it made sense for county employees to look for airport information under “General Services,” it wasn’t intuitive for “a citizen who has no idea how the government is structured,” Sauder said.

Through careful thought and analytics, the county rearranged its site to make it easier for the public to navigate and to focus more on its search engine. The most recent chapter in the upgrade came in the spring of 2016.

The county's finance director might want the budget to be prominently displayed online, Sauder said, but the most popular information on the county's website, by far, is the arrest log.

The town of Denton in Caroline has a website that’s in flux. Town Administrator Don Mulrine said the site could be described as “a nice word for old.”

A redesign is in the works, to add more and better information for businesses and residents. There will be sections on zoning and permitting and on popular events and activities.

Also, the town will introduce a “frequently asked questions” feature to highlight the topics most commonly sought.

Some basic pieces that are missing now, such as office hours and contact information for elected officials, will be added, Mulrine said.

At the same time, Denton is creating an online payment option for water and sewer bills, parking tickets and more. Mulrine said the challenge is making sure money goes to the right departments, which he compared to seven separate businesses.

Denton excelled in the MDDC study for its volume and grouping of meeting minutes — about 13 years’ worth on its site.

Mulrine said that probably will be cut to about five years online; most people only need to go back about six months to a year. Older minutes still will be available, though.

On several other government sites, there was less attention to detail. Minutes or budgets were sometimes years out of date.

The site for Kitzmiller in Garrett County lists elected officials whose terms expired five or six years ago. There’s no indication if they’re still in office or if the rest of the website has been kept current.

Other findings and trends from the study:

  • All but a handful of governments with websites included a list of elected officials and contact information for the government office.
  • Vendor lists were the least-met category, showing up on nine websites. Awarded bids also were not commonly posted; they appeared on 34 sites.
  • The smaller the population, the more likely a government website will be sparse, weak or absent. For some smaller jurisdictions, government information is folded in as a page on an all-purpose site with information about the community.
  • Geography plays a part, too. In Dorchester County, only three out of nine municipalities (other than the county government) had a website. It’s the opposite in Montgomery County, where all 19 municipalities had websites, and in Prince George’s County, where 26 out of 27 municipalities had a working site.
  • About three-fourths of the governments with sites had agendas posted (current or otherwise). In 2016, a bill that the Maryland General Assembly passed requires government bodies to make agendas available to the public at least 24 hours before a meeting or "as soon as is practical after the agenda has been determined."

The town of Accident in Garrett County, with about 325 residents, keeps a minimalist website, with little beyond a small collection of names, dates and phone numbers.

Town Clerk RuthAnn Hahn didn’t realize the site had gone down last week until a reporter alerted her. She planned to check with the company that runs the site to see what had gone wrong.

Hahn said the website isn’t comprehensive, but the town finds other ways to get information out when it needs to. When a water main broke, an alert on Facebook was more effective than a notice on the website would have been, she said.

In the same boat is the tiny Frederick County village of Rosemont, which has a few dozen more residents than Accident has.
If Rosemont Burgess Tom Watson knows of something he wants on the village's free Google website, he tells Town Clerk Mary Slagle, who posts it.

But with about 300 residents, a $40,000 budget, three roads and no new houses in at least seven years, there are few demands on the government.

Rosemont owns no vehicles or computers, and there is no government office. Slagle works at home and Watson said he keeps records in a file cabinet.

“We’re just a happy little community,” he said.


About the project

The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association and its members collaborated to review government websites across Maryland for the information they offered and how easy it was to find.

The study covered all 157 municipalities, 23 counties and Baltimore city — a total of 181 jurisdictions listed in the Maryland Manual (https://tinyurl.com/hzz2hlz).

Websites were evaluated for what they offered in 14 areas, ranging from elementary to in-depth:

• Location of a government office
• Office hours
• Contact info for a government office
• List of elected officials
• Contact info for elected officials
• Meeting dates
• Agendas
• Minutes
• Current budget
• Public notices (what usually would require a paid newspaper ad, such as for a public hearing)
• Bids available
• Bids awarded
• Vendor list
• How to do business with the government

Journalists doing the study erred on the side of leniency to mark a “yes” in a category. They wrote notes about some of their findings on a spreadsheet.

Journalists used basic research skills for the study. If information wasn’t in an obvious place on the home page or through a site menu, they tried the search function for assistance.

Our rule of thumb was: If we couldn’t find it through various methods, the public probably won’t either.
 
The project was led by MDDC, The Frederick News-Post and The Daily Times of Salisbury.
Other help came from: the Cumberland Times-News, the Capital Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Cecil Whig, The Calvert Recorder, the Carroll County Times, The Aegis and The Record in Harford County, the Kent County News, the Montgomery County Sentinel, the Prince George’s Sentinel, the Bowie Blade-News, the Bay Times, The Star Democrat and Herald-Mail Media.

 

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