Posts Tagged ‘Sunshine Laws’

Bad sunshine laws in five midwestern states

May 17, 2009

“According to a study released Wednesday by the Citizen Advocacy Center in celebration of Sunshine Week (March 15-21), open government laws in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota have systemic barriers that chill public participation and access to government, which weakens our democratic system designed to be by, for and of the people. 

The Center analyzed each state’s Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Acts and found striking similarities between all states, including:

  • Open government laws are sporadically enforced, which means public bodies are more likely to be unresponsive to records requests and employ exemptions to keep meetings closed.
  • No state surveyed has a government office with statutory authority specifically created to oversee and enforce sunshine laws.
  • State employees are not adequately trained to carry out open government policies and may be unintentionally violating the laws.
  • Citizens may be able to attend meetings, but there are very few opportunities to participate. “


NYC requires diagrams posted for new construction

February 6, 2009

I posted my review of the New York City website here.  Now the city has announced that the Department of Building in an effort allow citizens to challenge construction that might violate local ordinances will be able to view these diagrams online.  What the press release doesn’t say is whether citizens will be able to comment online about the diagrams.  That would feedback we could believe in.

Press release summary courtesy ResourceShelf.

Sunday special: City of Miami Website

January 25, 2009

City of Miami

Transparency:The good news – excellent resources for following Miami’s City Comission (their equivalent of the City Council).  They not only have agendas, minutes AND videos of the meetings, they also allow visitor to track meetings through RSS feeds.  And they also have a promenient search feature at the page.  The bad news – its not clear from the home page that the city commission IS the equivalent of a city council.  Worse, when I figured out to click on “commission agenda’s” it took me to another website from which I then navigated back to the main website but not really.  Very confusing.  “B-“

feedback: Not good.  First, the home page doesn’t list out common issues – like reporting potholes or graffiti etc.  Of course, once I searched the site, I realized why; citizen can’t report anything from the website other than emailing city officials. “D”

Richness of Information:   I looked for information about planning permits.  First off, on the left navigation sidebar, there is a heading for “Class II Permits” but not “permits.”  After browsing the planning department site, I found, “land development” which lists out information about permits.  But it isn’t clear that the permits discussed on this page are a comprehensive set of permits.  In addition, the writing is confusing and opaque.  Here is an example:  “Class II Special Permits apply to issues related to design, character, and compatibility of a proposed application as specified within different sections of the Zoning Ordinance and the City Code.”  “D”

Transacting business: Argh.  I had to use the search function and even then it wasn’t easy to find how to obtain a business license.  From the home page, I have go into the “business” label on the left sidebar.  Then I had  to know that business licenses could be found under “economic development” and when that page opens, its called” economic initiatives” not “economic development.”  From there, I needed to realize I need to click on “small business toolkit” as my choice on the left navigational sidebar.  Then I saw a label for “get licensed” and a long section of tiny print appears detailing issues – in no particular order – that discuss getting licensed with a series of phone numbers.  Extremely poor.  “F”

Overall:  This is the worst municipal site I have analyzed.  The only redeeming feature is the excellent page dealing with the City Commission even if the navigation to it is poor.  But bad navigation is the rule with this website.  It is frequently difficult to navigate back to the home page.  Instead, once you are in a particular section, you can only get to the section’s homepage.  The print on the webpages is tiny.  The writing is worse and the website is oblivious to the users who come to the site for answers or to do business with the city.  There is virtually no ability to interact with the city government online and very little effort to even educate citizens about the functions of municipal government.  “D”

Sunday Special: City of Houston

January 4, 2009

City of Houston:

Transparency:  Apparently there is no video or audio archive of City Council meetings.  No real-time video and audio archives either.  They do post upcoming and past city council meeting agendas but no meeting minutes.  “C-“

Feedback: Like other city websites, Houston doesn’t appear to encourage posting of other citizens’ complaint or concerns. However, also like other municipal websites,  a citizen can report on broken parking meters and street light outages.  The link for reporting grafitti is broken.  On the plus side, Texas has a Public Information Act which allows citizens to request information from a government entity regarding existing reports.  The City of Houston does a good job of listing the relevant agency, the type of information available and the department’s contact information. “B-“

Richness of information:  I went to “Public Works and Engineering” which has an impressive amount of information about the divisions, water rates, sewage and projects.  Unfortunately, most of the best information requires the user to scroll to the bottom of the page to find it because the introductory section is a long block of text. “B-“

Transacting business: I went to the link “One stop business center” from the “Business” tab and the page has the hours of the office scrolling across the top of the page and a photo of the department (two empty chairs and the counter) and a phone number. Along the side are links to pdf documents called “Getting Started Packet 1” and “Getting Started Packet 2.” It took quite awhile to download the first packet and the front page explains that there is no general City of Houston business license.  Beyond that, the document contains a lot of random information.  It didn’t strike me as a “Getting started packet.”  I also wonder why some of the information couldn’t have been included on the web-page rather than hidden away in a pdf.   It would good to know without having to download the packet that there is no general City of Houston business license.  “D-“

Overall:  The City of Houston has lots of information and the basic layout of the website is intuitive and easy on the eye. However, once I delved into individual sections, there are a number that are “under construction,” contain broken links and have poor layouts.  “C-“

Sunday Special: City of Angels municipal website

December 28, 2008

City of Los Angeles Website:

Transparency:  Los Angeles provides an archival video feed for its City Council meetings which is what I thought other cities such as Chicago and New York would also feature and didn’t.  My only quibble is from the home page, the link to City Council video isn’t found under “City Council” but “LA City Clerk Connect” which isn’t where I would expect to find it.  “A-“

Feedback:  Like New York and Chicago there is no interactive feedback allowed on the site.  You can’t see what others have said about City services or experiences.  However, they do allow citizens to report on many aspects of city life; graffiti removal, street lighting, trash pickup etc.  The forms tend to be single pages where all the information can be provided rather than multiple and unclear pages.  “B+”

Richness of Information:  I went to the “Department of Building and Safety” and was immediately impressed both by the amount of information made available from that page but also the easy-to-use layoff.  They provide a “what’s new” section, a sidebar called “I want to get” featuring more than a dozen links, a main section with forms, a “frequently requested publications” section as well as related departments and links.  “A”

Transacting business:  A new business can’t file a “Doing business as” (DBA) form online but its very easy to find the forms, conduct a search on business names, find the publications to file a notice and obtain the cost of filing for a DBA.  You can download the form and mail it to the correct city agency.  “B+”

Overall: The Los Angeles City website is the best of the three largest U.S. city websites.  It provides a wealth of information that is easy to find and to read.  It also allows citizens and businesses to interact more with city officials about basic issues like trash and the like.   Its not Web 2.0 but given the wealth of information and it is not a messy or intimidating site.  “A-“

Sunday Special: that toddlin’ town, Chicago!

December 21, 2008

Today I’m reviewing the City of Chicago’s municipal website:

Transparency:  I was excited when I found the City Council page and it said, “City Council Webcasts.”  I clicked on that link and it told me that the next meeting would be on Jan. 13th 2009 and I would be able to watch video live stream.   That’s better than New York but when I looked for an archive of city council meeting videos, I didn’t have any luck.  You have to watch the video live.  However, there is a webpage for the “City Council Journal of Proceedings that provides awkward access to all the City Council meetings back to 1988.  “B+”

Feedback:  They have a “311” service that allows citizens to report a variety of problems.  The interface isn’t very intuitive or friendly but it’s functional.  The city doesn’t advertise this service.  There is nothing on the City’s homepage to suggest you can make a complaint.  I only found this page by putting “pothole” in the search box.  The first result looked promising but then I had to back up several screens to find the “311” service allowing me to enter my information.  “B”

Richness of Information: I spent a few minutes navigating through the “Department of Consumer Services” and found it lacking.  There are lots of navigational pages with little content that lead to pages with little content.  For example, when I clicked on “About DCS” it took me to a page with three links, “Overview,” “Website” and “Industry rules and regulations.”  I clicked on “Overview” and it provided me with a sentence that basically said, Department of Consumer Services assists consumers with their services.  Not helpful. “D”

Transacting business:  It looks like you can apply for a new business license from the City of Chicago but the process is cumbersome.  You have to fill out several screens to create a profile in order to qualify for conducting business.  Since I’m not a resident, I couldn’t go through the process.  “B”

Overall:  Compared to New York City website, the Chicago site provides more information on City Council activity and the webcast of the meetings is a plus.  It also allows citizens to perform transactions like obtaining business licenses on the web.  The search function is good which is important because the navigation is poor.  There are too many unnecessary navigational pages.  It take a several unnecessary click to drill down to the desired information.  Also like New York, the city is weak on interactivity, can’t see other citizen comments about information or engage with the site. “C+”

Show Me the Spending!

November 19, 2008


A new website,, is committed to transparency in governmental spending.   The site is aimed at the state and local level and is sponsored by the National Taxpayers Union.   The idea is terrific but think it shouldn’t be focused just on money but also on government effectiveness. 

Abuse happens in the local agency and boards that get no sunshine and that is where it would be great if a couple concerned citizens would take responsibility for both vigilance to the keep these entities on their toes.  I’m sceptical of NTU as they are a right-wing organization that doesn’t believe in the basic function of government as having the potential of improving the lives of citizens.  Still, I welcome this site and well report back on its effectiveness.