This blog on local government transparency is authored by ELGL member Luke Floyd.
If you know anyone in local government, chances are they’ve either seen, or at least heard about, John Oliver’s recent hit piece on Special Districts. It’s spread quickly in our circles, because not only is it funny, it also happens to be true. While he certainly cherry-picked from the worst examples, he struck a nerve when it came to just how prolific – and unmonitored – special districts are.
I’m not going to bore you with a defense of special districts (for that, check out this great article by ELGL). Instead, I’m going to bore you with all of the things those special districts could have done to not end up on a late night comedy special. It’s nothing new for government officials to be lampooned by the ilk of John Oliver – hopefully it won’t be you that’s next! Obviously these are directed at the mentioned offenders, but cities, counties, and non-profits can all benefit from transparency, regardless of the public records laws in your state.
Rule #1 – Tell People You’re Having the Meeting.
Seems pretty basic, right? Unfortunately, looking at the design of some special district websites, you’d think they wanted the public to stay away. Let’s face it, the average member of the public is only going to be interested in a Board of Directors or City Council meeting a handful of times in their lives; there’s probably something very specific on the agenda that they care about. So step number one to make sure people know you’re having the meeting is to make it easy for the public to access your meeting agendas.
Can the public access your agendas & minutes from your homepage? Why not? Let’s give the test to one of my local special districts – The Fulton-Dekalb Hospital Authority. Here’s the homepage – no agendas for the Board of Trustees found, yet.
Well, maybe if we go to the Board of Trustees page, there will be an easy way to access the agenda for the meetings, right?
Okay, well this is just starting to get tedious. If I were an average member of the public, I probably would have given up on my curiosity. No wonder the board meetings are empty! Now, I can’t speak to the dedication to transparency for the Hospital Authority, but it’s not looking too good.
Instead, the meeting information for the Board of Trustee meetings is hosted on the Fulton county website…because that makes sense.
Moral of the story – don’t go through the motions of public notice. It’s not difficult – a simple button on the home page. Make the information readily available to anyone that might have the slightest curiosity about what you’re up to with these public meetings and then you probably won’t end up on the John Oliver show. This is an area where I’m very proud of BoardSync customers; most have agendas, minutes, & videos easily accessible to citizens.
Rule #2 – Involve Stakeholders
One of the touchy subjects John Oliver touched on was the lack of oversight. While it’s not an issue for most decent human beings, oversight is necessary because some people just use local government as a personal job board. But does that mean oversight has to come from outside watchdogs? No!
In fact, the best oversight comes from within your own organization. The trick here is monitoring the who, what, and why of public meetings internally. That’s a lot to keep up with if you’re in the County Auditor’s office and you need to keep track of the Board of Commissioners, Planning & Zoning, the Business Development district, etc.
One easy way to involve internal stakeholders, for cooperation and for oversight, is to use cloud-based tools like Dropbox. While BoardSync can automate the process for you, meeting management software isn’t prerequisite to using technology to make cooperation easier. Within DropBox, you can create individual folders for each meeting, and add templates that items/agendas must pass through in order to appear at the meetings.
Notifications like these will pop up, letting the reviewer/approver know it’s time to view an added item. Sure, it’s a workaround for a complete platform like BoardSync provides, but it’s easily manageable and better than endless email chains or paper copies.
Rules #3 – Keep Records
To be honest, this rule can actually probably get you in more trouble – kind of like the firefighters in the segment that comped fireworks and chew to the district – but if you’re still reading chances are you have a good head on your shoulders. There are three stereotypical records keepers – those that don’t, those that hoard, and those that really, really need the folders to line up in an L on their computer.
(Simple Dog is a pretty good reference point for the latter in that list.)
For those that don’t keep records at all, it’s probably good to at least start keeping a paper trail so you don’t go to jail. Above that, it can also be incredibly time saving to keep digital copies, so you can easily copy/paste previous measures, items, or minutes easily.
For those that hoard records, you’re just making your life harder and the rest of us more anxious. If you have all your agendas, minutes, proposed ordinances, and other items in a non-indexed desktop folder labeled “Meetings and Stuff”, you’re gonna have a bad time if/when you deal with public requests.
For those that need records managed to a T – good for you, you’ve at least gotten started! Now, you need to relax and put a structure in place – whether it’s software like ours, automatic backups, or other redundancy measures – to put your mind at ease that your records are safe, kept, and searchable. That last part is crucial, because what good is having records about meetings if you can’t search them quickly?
Basically, in order to not be lampooned by John Oliver, be dedicated to transparency.
In fact, he mentioned how great California is at holding special districts to transparent standards – it’s one of the reasons we work with the California Special Districts Association. We like to be associated with clients that uphold the principles of open government and transparency. These are just a few of the things I’ve picked up from them. They were noticeably absent from John Oliver’s segment.
If you’d like to see how BoardSync is helping special districts stay transparent, click here.