What information should counties disclose on their websites?
County residents and taxpayers need to be able to adequately gauge whether a county government is:
- Frugal with tax revenues
- In compliance with all expectations and relevant laws about public records and open meetings.
In order for this to happen, residents and taxpayers should expect to find key information on any county's website.
The county website should include comprehensive budget information.
- The budget for the current fiscal year should be posted online.
- Budgets for previous years should be posted online.
- It should be very easy for people to find this information when they visit the website. This means that prominent navigational features enabling someone to locate the budget should be included on the homepage of the website.
- Graphic features that compare the current budget to past year's budgets should be incorporated, to enable people to make sense of trends over time.
- Narrative features should be incorporated into descriptions of the budget. For example, if the current year budget is 1.2% higher, or 5% lower, or 14.7% higher than the previous year's budget, it is helpful to citizens to provide this comparative explanation at the beginning of a summary about the budget.
County government meetings/agendas
The county's website should disclose all county government meetings and agendas.
- Time of meeting.
- Place of meeting.
- Agendas for all meetings that fall under rules about open meetings (which should be 99% of any government meetings);
- Whether the meeting is open or closed.
- Whether public input is allowed at the meeting and, if so, what the rules are that govern public input.
- Minutes of meetings should be recorded and posted online.
Elected officials and elections
The county's website should disclose key information about the county's elected officials.
- Their names.
- Contact information, including phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
- Terms of office and date of next election.
- If the elected officials are elected in partisan elections, the website should indicate their party affiliation.
- Any financial disclosures and conflict-of-interest statements that the county requires of its elected officials should be posted online.
- Their committee appointments.
Ballotpedia took a closer look at the type of election information available on county websites with its county election website evaluations released in March 2012.
The county's website should disclose key information about the county's appointed administrators:
- Their names and titles.
- Contact information, including phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
Building permits and zoning
- Does the county provide information about how to move forward to obtain building permits?
- Are homeowners given the choice to expand?
- How much is available to explain, record and track the process of obtaining a permit?
If the county conducts financial and management audits to ensure that it is operating in accordance with the highest standards of financial and management competence and integrity:
- Copies of performance and financial audits should be posted on the county's website.
- Routine financial audits should be posted online.
- Evaluations of the performance of any specific agencies or commissions should be posted online.
The county's website should provide comprehensive information about the contracts it enters into with vendors.
- The rules the county must abide by when it enters into contracts with outside vendors should be posted on the county's website.
- When the county enters into a bidding process for larger contracts, the request for bids should be posted on the county's website.
- Publicly available information about the bids the county receives should be posted online, keyed to the request for bids the county has previously published.
- Specific contracts the county enters into with outside vendors for any amount over $10,000 should be posted online.
- If elected officials of the county have received campaign contributions from any vendors who sell services to the county, this information should be posted on the county's website.
- If the county enters into a contract with a lobbyist or lobbying firm, full details of this arrangement must be posted on the county's website, including the name of the lobbyist or lobbying firm, the amount paid to the lobbyist or firm, and the legislation that the lobbyist is advocating for on the taxpayer's dime.
- If the county pays dues to belong to any lobbying associations, full details of these arrangements should be included on the county's website, including the name of the association, the amount paid in dues, and an identification of what positions that lobbying association is taking with the money it has received from the county's taxpayers via the dues paid to it by the county.
- If the county gives grants to non-profit organizations, these grants should be disclosed on the county's website with a reason for the grant and information about who in the non-profit organization is responsible for oversight and administration of the funds it has received from the county's taxpayers via a grant from the county.
How much information can you learn from your county's website about local taxes?
- How are property tax levels set?
- How often are property assessments conducted?
- Is there a local sales tax?
- What other local taxes does the county collect?
Access to government records and public documents
The county website should include comprehensive information about how citizens can obtain access to public records in the custody of the county.
- When a citizen wants to file an open records request, which employee handles those requests?
- What is that employee's contact information?
- The county website should provide this information in a very easy-to-locate position on their website.
- The county website should lay out the procedure for a citizen to follow who wants access to public records.
- The information should be user-friendly.
- The county website should include an annual rating of its FOIA compliance: How many requests did it receive in a given year, how many did it comply with, the average time required for compliance, and reasons for denials. If the county is currently being sued for failure to provide public documents, this information should be included.
- If the county has been ordered by a judge or public records ombudsman to provide documents it refused to produce in response to a public records request, this information should be a permanent record posted on the city's website.
Problems with your county's grade:
If you find that any of the information that is posted on your county's website is false, not up-to-date, or has been taken down please e-mail Geoff Pallay at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know. We'll retract the point from the county's score, and lower its transparency score.
However, we do not take away points due to wasteful spending, unanswered FOIA requests, or other "offline" activities—our scores are based solely on the county's website. We do hope that you'll report on these other instances by adding additional information to your county's page, like we have in Houston Independent School District, Texas.
Evaluate your county's website
To find out whether your county is responsible about providing key information to its residents and taxpayers:
- Click on United States.
- Find and click on your state.
- Once you do that, you'll find a navigational bar on the top of the screen.
- That navigational bar has a link to "counties".
- Click on that link to find a list of all the counties in your state.
- When you find your county, the name of your county will appear in either blue or red.
- If it appears in blue, that means someone else has already started writing on Sunshine Review about your county.
- Click on the link to find out what they've written and to add your own information.
- If the article about your county doesn't yet include a link to your county's website, please add that link to the bottom of the page.
Adding information to Sunshine Review
- Log in to your Sunshine Review Account. This will allow you to edit (add information to) a page.
- Look at Alexandria, Louisiana as an example.
- For your county, add information to your county's page on Sunshine Review in the same manner that information was added to the Alexandria, Louisiana page.
If you add a line saying that "no budget was found" or "the county's website has a budget for each of the last three years", you can also link to the place on the county website where you found the budget.
If the county's website has a budget, but it isn't searchable, or it only includes a budget for one year, or you have any suggestions for improving how the county presents the budget, please note those recommendations or concerns on the Sunshine Review article about your county.