County works to improve web site, but watchdog group gives poor grades
Sunday, September 27, 2009
By John I. Carney
Bedford County Mayor Eugene Ray said the county is working to improve the amount and quality of the information offered on its web site, and just this month started publishing county commission minutes on the site.
However, the web site Sunshine Review, a project of the Chicago-based Sam Adams Alliance, gives most Tennessee counties poor grades for their web site content, giving Bedford, Coffee and Rutherford counties D-minus grades for their web sites while Marshall and Lincoln counties received a grade of F. Metro Lynchburg / Moore County is one of 36 counties in Tennessee that do not have a county government web site at all, which the project also considers a failing grade.
Ray said that the previous county government web site was not well-maintained and had out-of-date information. He said he, his assistant Kimberly Warren, the county's information technology director James Trott, County Clerk Kathy Prater and others have been working together as a technology committee to improve the local web site. It has meeting schedules as well as contact information for county departments and county commission members, including phone numbers.
Among the things Sunshine Review would like to see on county web sites are budgets, audits and contracts.
Ray said he would be open to publishing budgets on the county web site.
"That's not something I've thought about, but we could do that," said Ray.
Sunshine Review also calls for zoning and local tax information, county audits and contracts, information about how to make a public records request, and whether the county belongs to (and spends taxpayer money on the dues for) lobbying organizations like the County Officials Association of Tennessee or the Tennessee County Commissioners Association.
Although Sunshine Review claims that zoning information is not included on the Bedford County web site, the site does have downloadable permit applications, which Sunshine Review's checklist calls for as the minimum standard. Ideally, the group would like to see online submission of zoning applications and an online process for tracking the progress of applications.
According to the Sunshine Review findings, Tennessee's most transparent counties are Bradley County; Metro Nashville / Davidson County; Hamilton, Montgomery and Williamson counties, each of which earned a B-minus, meeting seven points on the checklist.
"The Sunshine Review community believes every county in the nation has a responsibility to make basic information easily available to the taxpayer," said Kristin McMurray, managing editor of Sunshine Review. "We urge Tennessee residents to use the results of these evaluations to push for reform in their counties."
During the evaluation process Sunshine Review learned that simple information like budgets are only posted on 21 county websites, and meeting schedules could only be found on 23. Only 16 counties made tax information accessible online, while no counties posted information regarding contracts, lobbying and public records.
"Citizens deserve to know what their government is doing and how their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent," McMurray said. "We hope county officials will welcome our findings and begin taking the necessary steps to achieve greater open and honest government by meeting all ten points on the transparency checklist."
Meanwhile, Ray said he has been working to increase the availability of broadband Internet access in Bedford County and pointed to the decision by Monster Broadband to offer its wireless broadband service in parts of the county. He said AT&T is still considering expanding the areas where it offers broadband service.
Monster Broadband recently e-mailed the Times-Gazette to respond to criticisms from online commenters at the T-G web site. Steve Baker, a co-owner of the company, said the company is not receiving any sort of government funding for its operation or expansion. He also said the firm does not just serve subdivisions and that 75 percent of its customers are from outside a subdivision or highly-concentrated area.
On the web
Bedford County web site: www.bedfordcountytn.org
Sunshine Review: sunshinereview.org
Sam Adams Alliance: samadamsalliance.org
Offical Article Link: Shelbyville Times Article 1