Bath, Highland Web sites: Room to improve

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BY MIKE BOLLINGER AND JOHN BRUCE • STAFF WRITERS

MONTEREY and WARM SPRINGS — A government watchdog group has given Bath and Highland counties a failing grade for their Internet presence.

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government graded both Bath and Highland government Web sites with an “F,” specifically on Internet access to the county budget.

The coalition is a nonprofit alliance formed to promote expanded access to government records, meetings and other proceedings at the state and local level.

While Web publication of a county budget is not mandatory, it is encouraged by Virginia state law.

The Highland County government Web site, highlandcova.org, carries such material as announcements, the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance and several other features, but not the county budget.

County administrator Roberta Lambert said she has not heard any comments about putting the budget on the site, or complaints that it’s not posted there, but that doesn’t rule out the prospect of making it available online, she said.

The Web site has been a mostly a voluntary effort on the part of zoning administrator Jim Whitelaw, she said.

“Since the inception of the county’s Web site, Jim Whitelaw has maintained it for the county, at no cost to the county,” Lambert said.

Whitelaw told supervisors this week he would no longer be providing this service because he had heard complaints and concerns about the site.

Whitelaw serves as building inspector, zoning administrator, electrical and safety administrator, IT administrator, E-911 addressing coordinator and carries other duties. “Of course, staffing, where employees wear many hats, and funding are always issues for small localities like Highland,” Lambert noted.

Lambert said she and county supervisors have discussed options as Whitelaw’s retirement approaches. “Out of consideration and appreciation for the countless hours Jim has provided to the county in his many positions, I have not initiated any major changes at this time,” she said. “We strive to have pertinent and mandatory information available on the Web site.”

The Code of Virginia states, “The governing body shall annually publish the approved budget on the locality’s Web site, if any, or shall otherwise make the approved budget available in hard copy as needed to citizens for inspection.”

Lambert explained, “We have not been publishing the budget on the Web site but always have the approved budget available in hard copy as referenced in any published budget notifications. We have not had any requests for posting of the budget on the Web site, but also have no issues with asking Jim to include budgets on the Web site if this will be more convenient for citizens. We are always willing to look at including any beneficial information and always appreciate any comments or suggestions.”

Bath County’s budget has never been available online, but board of supervisors chair Bruce McWilliams said that will change in the near future.

In fact, until recently, Bath’s government wasn’t online at all. The web site went down in July for a redesign and wasn’t back up Jan. 29.

The new site contains information about the county in general, county departments, government, emergency services and contact information.

Once the 2013-14 budget is developed, McWilliams said it would be on the site. “The budget will be there. If it’s public information, it should be on the Web page. We are committed to a strong effort so information will be easily accessible to the public,” he said. “We want to emphasize making information such as agendas, board packets and board minutes available.”

McWilliams said it should be a fairly easy process to post information. “It’s a matter of scanning it, finding the right place to put it and putting it on there,” he said.

While the county didn’t intend for the Web site to be down almost eight months, McWilliams said the redesign was needed. A committee of supervisors and county staff looked at what needed to be online as part of the redesign process. “There are so many things that need to be centralized. We’re so much technologically behind the curve in the courthouse,” he said.

County executive assistant Janet Bryan said Madison & Main of Richmond designed the new site and also did new sites for the Bath County Chamber of Commerce and Bath County Tourism Department. “They took the old site down before they started to build the new one. We were asking for information from department heads, and in some cases we were slow to get information from people,” Bryan said.

Because of that, Bryan said the process started over again, and county officials still didn’t like the way the proposed site looked. “We finally got more information and photos and sent those to them. We will be training on how to change things on the site,” she said.

Bryan, a longtime county employee, also said the budget had never been on Bath’s web site.

Statistics on how frequently the old site was visited were not available. Bryan said that would be monitored with the new one.

According to the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, the organization “is dedicated to the principle that self-government depends on well-informed citizens.”

VCOG explained the reason behind its study. “The digital age presents unprecedented opportunities for government to provide citizens access to essential information. This report assesses and grades the performance of Virginia’s 134 counties and independent cities in providing easy online access to local government’s fundamental operating document: its annual budget.”

Why did VCOG choose to seek budgets on government sites? “It’s simple, really: Without the budget there’s nothing else,” stated Megan Rhyne, VCOG executive director, in a release on the work. “Everyone knows what a budget is. Whether it’s your personal finances, a business balance sheet, Congress, a wedding plan, a PTA bake sale, most adults (and hopefully some kids out there!) understand money in and money out. For a local government budget, the money in is from taxpayers’ pockets (federal funds and grants, too, of course), and the money out is the spending of those taxpayer funds. The budget is thus the most literal way government can be held accountable. The budget’s numbers tell us what the government’s priorities are. The numbers by themselves don’t have spin. It is up to citizens to decide if the money is being spent appropriately, in the right amounts and for the things we value.”

VCOG found most localities had their current budgets available. The group explained that some had the proposed budget, some had a budget resolution or some sort of letter/message about the budget, but not the final, adopted budget. “Some did not have anything that we could find for the current fiscal year. These localities might have shown adopted or proposed budgets from prior fiscal years, but not the current year. And finally, sad to see, some had no budget documents whatsoever.”

In addition to Bath and Highland, 13 other localities did not have a budget available online; they included: Covington, Emporia, Galax, Norton, and the counties of Alleghany, Buchanan, Craig, Giles, Grayson, Greensville, Lee, Lunenburg, and Mecklenburg.

VCOG’s report explained, however, that population did not always have a direct correlation on the study’s results. “The localities receiving failing grades tend to be among the smallest localities in the state. Covington, Emporia, Galax and Norton are four of Virginia’s seven smallest cities; Bath, Craig and Highland are the state’s three smallest counties. On the other hand, five of the localities receiving F grades have populations above the median population of all state jurisdictions (24,802): Henry County, Amherst County, Louisa County, Lee County and Mecklenburg County,” the reported stated.

“A bigger population does not, however, appear to translate into easy budget access. None of the cities receiving an A+ to A- are among the 10 biggest, and only two of the 10 biggest counties received a similar grade. Meanwhile six of the top scorers (City of Fairfax, Waynesboro, City of Franklin, Fredericksburg, Northampton and Lancaster counties) all have populations below the median,” VCOG concluded.

Furthermore, the study noted, “Among the larger localities — the ones that are arguably more complex and more sophisticated — are in some way victims of their own success. Their web sites are typically full of information and often feature slick interfaces. They may thus present their residents with loads of information, but that information may be hard to sort through and navigate. Take Henrico County. The sixthlargest locality in the state does not use the word ‘budget’ in its series of clicks. To get to the budget, the user must first choose a category called ‘Departments,’ then ‘Departments A-F,’ then ‘Finance,’ and finally to the ‘Approved Fiscal Plan 2012-2013.’ It’s there, but the pathway is not intuitive.”

Finally, VCOG concluded, “Though the Code does not mandate website publication, it is clear that the General Assembly has determined that this piece of information is critical enough that it should be available and accessible to its citizens. If the information is published on a website, it should not then be buried under layers of links. The proactive disclosure of information and other critical public records is in the government’s interest, too. When information is easily available on websites, citizens can access the information on their own without having to file requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act.”

As Rhyne wrote, “We hope this report shines a light on some of those practices, and helps to begin fruitful discussions about openness and transparency between local governments and their citizens.”

2013-02-21 / Top News

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