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Rod Watson: Most local governments flunk transparency test

If government can’t even get the little things right, why should we trust it with the big things?

That’s the question municipalities should ask themselves when figuring out how to respond to a watchdog group’s report that gives failing grades to 14 out of 16 local governments on that most basic of tasks: letting the public know what they are doing in its name.

The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government looked at municipal websites to see how much information they offer the public. It graded them on 10 factors, such as whether the sites contain meeting agendas and all the background information so the public can understand what’s being voted on; whether meetings are video recorded and posted online; and if citizens can speak on issues before boards vote.

Only Amherst and Wheatfield got passing grades, 77 and a 75.5, respectively, good enough for a C-plus. Next best were Buffalo, at 63 percent, and Erie County, at 62 percent – leading a long list of governments earning an F with grades as low as 29 out of 100.

“I never expected, quite honestly, that 90 percent would get a failing grade,” said attorney Paul Wolf, coalition president. “These aren’t difficult to fix. These are pretty basic items.”

They also are indicative of a municipality’s attitude toward the public, which can also be expressed in more troubling ways, such as shutting the public out of meetings that should be open or refusing to release information that citizens have a right to see – abuses that happen all too often around here.

Wolf organized the coalition of activists, educators, attorneys and journalists last year to try to force local governments to be more transparent. But this issue rarely rises to the top of any list of citizen concerns.

Buffalo Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen said constituents he hears from are more concerned about quality of life issues than what’s on the Council agenda. Nevertheless, he said transparency is a priority and pointed to improvements like putting online the actual items that are filed with the Council, so citizens can understand what’s being decided.

“So we are moving in the right direction,” Pridgen said. “Are we totally there yet? No.”

But he takes issue with the criticism that the Council – like the County Legislature – doesn’t allow citizens to speak at meetings, only at committee sessions. Those sessions often are where matters actually get decided. Pridgen also noted it’s where members have more time to delve into issues, and that the Council holds evening sessions on hot topics like the Green Code to get more input.

Wolf was unimpressed, saying not all legislators attend committee sessions to hear what citizens have to say.

Still, at least Buffalo’s Council seems to get it.

“The more transparent you are, the greater trust people will have for their government,” Pridgen said.

Not all elected officials are so enlightened. And Wolf is right that it’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma: More transparency – such as by posting meeting agendas – can lead to greater citizen involvement, and vice versa. Which raises the question: Who’s going to force the issue if the public doesn’t demonstrate interest and some officials prefer not to be watched too closely anyway?

“If incumbents won’t deal with it, perhaps some challengers will make it an issue,” Wolf said.

Ah! Making political self-interest align with the public interest. Maybe that’s how we get good government.

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