Sunshine would prevent more Bells

AUGUST 11, 2010


Bell is one of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County, pays its top officials some of the highest salaries in the nation, including nearly $800,000 annually to the city manager. When citizens do not have the information necessary to hold officials accountable, abuse of power and misconduct in office are almost certain results.  Hence, it should come as no surprise that Bell’s government also fails the most basic standards of government transparency

And like Bell, the vast majority of state and local governments also fail to meet the most basic standards for government transparency. That fact alone virtually guarantees that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of officials across America are today wasting taxpayer money by the fistfuls on astronomical salaries, sweetheart contracts and payrolls bloated by cronyism, breathtaking malfeasance, stupidity and criminality.

Sunshine Review ( has analyzed more than 5,000 state and local government websites to assess their transparency on a 10-point scale, and award grades from A+ to F.   Bell scored an “F” on the Sunshine Review analysis.  Unfortunately, the transparency failure of Bell is not an outlier. Bell is not the exception; it is too often the rule.  In March, Sunshine Review recognized all the local government websites that scored a nine or 10.  Of the 5,000 Web sites analyzed thus far, a mere 39 scored a nine or 10.

State and local governments, and school districts, have an obligation to proactively share the information people need to hold officials accountable for how tax money is spent and how the people’s business conducted… a “Sunshine Standard.”

Today, most state and local governments do not embrace transparency and proactive sharing of information. Transparency exists on government websites largely at the munificence of officials, with the burden of negotiating complex and costly Freedom of Information Act petitions resting squarely on the shoulders of citizens and journalists.  Despite sunshine laws and much pro-transparency rhetoric, information requests by journalists and citizens are routinely ignored, given the bureaucratic “slow roll,” and discouraged by inflated price tags for staff time and copying.

As Bell bears witness, a new approach is needed.

Reforms are needed at the state and local levels to mandate a minimum “Sunshine Standard” requiring that governments proactively share documents and information, including:

Budgets for current and previous years, and a graph showing increases or decreases over time to help citizens evaluate and understand trends in local government spending, including spending for salaries. The checkbook register and credit card receipts should also be posted.

Open meeting laws should be posted, along with notices about public meetings of the governing board, minutes of past meetings, and a schedule and agendas for future and past meetings.

Public officials should be listed online by name with contact information, email addresses, and the elected official’s voting record. The names of key administrators and their contact information, including e-mail addresses, also should be posted.

Building permits and zoning applications should be available for review and downloading. In addition, citizens should be able to submit and track applications online.

Audit information should be available for online inspection, including report results, audit schedules and performance audits of government programs.

Contract rules should be posted, along with bids and contracts for purchases over $10,000, as well as vendors’ campaign contributions to government contract decision makers.

Lobbying contributions to any publicly funded lobbying associations that contribute taxpayer money to other associations should be disclosed.

Public records should include the name of the person who is in charge of fulfilling open records requests, along with contact information for that person.

Tax information should be maintained in a central location, including state “fees” such as driver’s licenses, tax documents for all elected officials, and agency sources of revenue.

Citizens should insist that their state and local governments expand the information available on Web sites, and demand reforms requiring compliance with a Sunshine Standard. When state and local governments meet a Sunshine Standard, outrages like Bell are far less likely to happen.

Michael Barnhart is President of Sunshine Review.

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