Notice: This is not a City of Long Beach site.

Dear Readers: Please note that this is not a City of Long Beach website and is not paid for nor maintained by taxpayer funds.

If you contact Gerrie Schipske through this site on any matter pertaining to the City of Long Beach, a copy of your contact will be forwarded to her official city email as an official public record.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

City Council Needs to Come Clean if We Are Truly Supporting Open Government

Last night, the Council approved two agenda items brought forth by Councilman Robert Garcia and me that would further open up City Hall to the public by requiring a full and transparent city website that is based upon the 10 points suggested by and by providing a means where by residents can make comments on line about pending agenda items.

These proposals will give residents full access to the important information as detailed later in this post. The good news is that the City of Long Beach already provides a great deal of this information. The most important element lacking, however, is the "Checkbook" register which details how we spend the money. This is not budget information -- which is prospective -- it is as we go along information so that the public can see if we are truly spending money in the most appropriate manner.

On the floor last night, I brought up the fact that if the Council really wants to support open government then those of us who use non-City of Long Beach email to communicate City business, should include a cc in our email messages to our City email account so that the email becomes a public record. Otherwise we are not being fully open and transparent.

I have been doing just that because many people use the contact form on this blog or send me an email to my personal email (yahoo, earthlink, gmail).

Open government "advocate" Peter Scheer says it best about danger in letting electeds conduct government business by private email:  
You don’t have to be a legal scholar to appreciate the size of the loophole that this practice creates. If all it takes to avoid the obligations of the Public Records Act, California’s freedom of information law, is to use a commercial email account for official communications, then all such communications–except the occasional anodyne and self-serving message actually intended for public consumption–will shift to that private channel. The Public Records Act, already porous with special interest loopholes, might as well be renamed the California Official Secrets Act.
 Scheer (see his full article  by clicking here) proposes the following remedies about making communications open and transparent:

1) Agencies and local governments should set up one email account with gobs of storage capacity. To keep it simple and inexpensive, a corporate account (offering extra security) with Google or Yahoo will suffice.
2) Agencies’ .gov email accounts, by default, should “bcc” all emails to the government database account.
3) All government employees should be instructed that, when using their own commercial email account for government matters, they must “bcc” their business messages to the database account (and forward incoming business email there too). Basically, any email that is not strictly personal should be copied to the online storage account.
So, short of putting this item back on the agenda and forcing a public vote, I am asking our electeds to really get on board about open government by only conducting city business in emails that can become public records.

FYI: Items to be included on the city website:
  • Budgets: The website should include the current budget. Bonus points if the website shows the budgets for previous years, and a graph showing increases or decreases over time to help citizens evaluate and understand trends in local government spending. The checkbook register and credit card receipts should also be posted.
  • Rationale: Budgets show the big picture of what goals and priorities the government established for the year. Budgets details also serve as a way for taxpayers determine how the government performed in relation to past years.
  • Open meeting laws should include notices about public meetings of its governing board, and minutes of past meetings. Also check for meeting agendas for future and/or past meetings.
  • Rationale: Meetings are one of the few ways the public can engage in true dialogue with representatives. Given the reality of busy schedules, governments should offer an alternative to meeting attendance by posting meetings, agendas, locations and minutes on their website.
  • Elected officials should include names of elected officials, and their contact information, including email addresses. Also we should be able to see an elected official's voting record.
  • Rationale: Officials are elected to represent their constituents. In order to do so effectively they should be engaged in regular dialogue and be as accessible as possibly by providing a variety of ways to be contacted.
  • Administrative Officials should be listed on government websites. The website should include the names of key administrators, and their contact information, including e-mail addresses.
  • Rationale: Administrative staff are knowledgeable resources, provide constituent services and often enforce ordinances. Because of these roles it is imperative for them to be available to constituents by providing contact information to the heads of each department and not just general information.
  • Building permits and zoning: At the very least applications should be available to be downloaded online. In addition, constituents should be able to submit applications and track the process online.
  • Rationale: Almost all government application processes are already digitalized. By facilitating the process online government should cut down on cost and time barriers as well as improving communication and service to their constituents.
  • Audits: The website should include regular an audit information including: report results, audit schedules and performance audits for government programs.
  • Rationale: While budgets give the big picture to constituents, an audit reveals how well the government performs on their goals. An audit reveals how closely elected officials kept their promises, and enable constituents to hold them accountable.
  • Contracts: The website should include rules governing contracts posted online;including bids and contracts for purchases over $10,000 and the vendor's campaign contributions posted with contract.
  • Rationale: Contracts should be available for review so the people can evaluate if the contract was a no bid replacement and/or if the government chose the best solution for its constituents.
  • Lobbying: If the unit of government belongs to any taxpayer-funded lobbying associations that it helps to fund by paying association or membership dues, that information should be disclosed on the government unit's website.
  • Rationale: Almost all government entities have lobbyists on retainer or are members of an association that lobbys on their behalf. This information should be disclosed to constituents, so they can make sure what is being lobbied benefits the community.
  • Public records: The website should include the name of the person who is in charge of fulfilling open records requests, along with contact information for that person.
  • Rationale: The government is obligated by law to answer FOIA requests. By posting an individual contact, it creates an avenue which should ease the way for constituents and displaces ill-will often caused by a confusing process.
  • 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 agencies sources of revenue.
  • Rationale: Tax information should be available to those looking to move or sell residences in their district. Disclosing tax burdens accurately reflects the cost of living.

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