A better way to online access of public records

betterwaytoolineaccess

The following article appeared in the March 15, 2009 editions of the Connecticut Post and Danbury News-Times.

By MARK DUMAS

This week is Sunshine Week. If you have not heard of it before, Sunshine Week is a national initiative lead by the American Society of Newspaper Editors that aims to open a dialogue about open government and freedom of information.

The theme for this year’s Sunshine Week is online access to public records. This is an important topic because the internet creates an opportunity for every level of government to achieve a degree of openness and transparency that we could never have imagined just thirty-years ago when sunshine laws like the state and national freedom of information acts were passed in response to Watergate era scandals.

Over the past decade, our state and federal governments have made significant progress with access to public records on the internet. You can search the Congressional Record and find copies of state and federal bills online. You will also soon be able to use a new website that will allow the public to search 50 different federal records collections. Ed O’Keefe from the Washington Post has called this new database “Google for federal documents.”

But as we have found here in Connecticut, providing electronic access to local government records is not quite as easy as it sounds.

The problem is that unlocking a file cabinet or the door to a council meeting does not cost a cent. Designing websites that publish those same records online can cost thousands of dollars. And someone must also upload those records too, which will – one way or the other – come at a price to municipal governments and local taxpayers.

This year, the challenge of providing online access to public records became more pressing for Connecticut’s cities and towns. Effective October 1, 2008, a new state law now requires that municipalities post meeting agendas and minutes on their websites without any distinction between a major city like Bridgeport and a small town like Bethany.

For decades, local governments have been required to post these documents in town hall. That was a relatively simple task. Someone could just make a copy and tack a few sheets of paper to a wall. But even some of our larger cities cannot easily post minutes on their current websites. Their websites need to be redesigned and municipal employees have to be trained to upload records to the new websites. In some cases, towns may even be forced to pay outside companies to post the records online. There is a price tag for this law and many cities and towns can’t or don’t want to pay it.

Advocates for open government point out that the cost associated with putting basic records online is not prohibitive, but when towns are forced to lay-off workers and freeze spending, paying for the transition to online public records seems trivial. As a result, many towns are threatening to shut down their websites if the state does not change the law. This could result in the unintended consequence of less online access to local public records.

The General Assembly is listening to these concerns. Several bills have been filed to limit or delay the online records requirement and one of those bills has already passed a key committee vote. But what seems to be lost in this debate is the issue of unfunded mandates. The goal of the new law was to provide more access to public records and that is a goal that we can all support. But the state needs to look to itself before it forces local governments to pay for the legislature’s good ideas.

The State of Utah has found a much better alternative to Connecticut’s bottom-up online records requirement. Instead of forcing cities and towns to post notices on hundreds of different websites, the Beehive State has launched the statewide Utah Public Meeting Notice search engine. Anyone in the world can go to this single page and find out about almost any public meeting in the state. Guess what the best part is? It cost less – and a lot less – than forcing hundreds of municipalities to design and host new websites of their own. And guess what the second best part is? It was paid for by the state without an unfunded mandate. The website also happens to be incredibly easy to use and find. This is a model that Connecticut should follow.

With billions of dollars in stimulus money in Washington, a new president committed to open government, and a Congressional delegation with significant clout, the state should be able to find the modest funding needed to implement the Utah model for online local public records. The state can do it and it can do it without passing the buck to Bridgeport and Bethel. The policy was good. The method of implementing it was bad. The solution is simple.

As this Sunshine Week begins, we should all be grateful for open governments that are the envy of people in other parts of the world. At the same time, we should continue to strive for not just more public transparency, but also more effective open government.

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