Kendall County fails transparency audit : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
|Kendall County fails transparency audit |
|Illinois Policy Institute cites lack of public information on county websites |
|by Matt Schury|
Kendall County has some work to do if it wants to improve its online transparency.
That's the conclusion of a study done by the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), a group that describes itself as a nonpartisan research organization.
The institute says Kendall County was one of 20 counties in Illinois that failed transparency audits of their websites.
The IPI says it performed these audits on 26 county governments in northern Illinois rating the amount of information each one has on their website.
Brian Costin, director of government reform with the institute, says they rated the counties based on contact information, meeting information including access to minutes, board packets, calendars and agendas. They also looked at the amount of information a county has on their site to help residents file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
The group also searched websites for annual budget reports, financial audits, information on individual and yearly expenditures, salary and benefit figures, as well as business contracts.
The audit also included a check to see if counties had information on lobbying they do, as well as information on taxes and fees residents pay in the county.
The group performed two audits Costin said.
In the first audit they looked for the information and assigned a score. They then notified the county officials and department heads of their scores and gave them a chance to improve.
Costin says the group then did a second audit and released the results.
In Kendall County's case, Costin said the county received a score of 26.9 in the first audit and 45.2 in the second audit, both failing grades. Kendall County had four categories in which it didn't receive any points--expenditures, salary and benefits, lobbying and taxes.
"Kendall County did make some improvements over the course of this project, but obviously there is a long way to go," Costin said, adding, "Any way we can help them on their journey towards more transparency we would be more than willing to assist them."
Costin said it shouldn't be too hard to put that information online since the county is already required to publish an income and expenditure report in a local newspaper.
He added that if the county breaks its expenditures out by year and by individual expenses, citizens can see the individual purchases the county is making.
"If it's online it's there 24/7 and people can use that," he said.
Salary and benefit information was nowhere to be found on the county's website and it is often the lowest scoring area on their checklist, Costin said.
He said when employees or a union ask for a two percent raise for instance it can give people context. Is the raise on top of an already large salary or is it to catch the employees up to what others are making?
"People can start understanding where our taxpayer dollars are going," he said.
Regarding lobbying, Costin said there are a lot of counties that are doing direct lobbying at the state or in Washington DC.
"The taxpayer should know if their taxpayer dollars are being used to lobby other government agencies," he said.
More information needs to be included on Kendall County's website Costin said, that includes property taxes as well as business permits.
"Business owners are going to be able to find that information out before they make planning decisions or investment decisions," he said. "Hopefully that is going to give people a better understanding of what we have to do in order to go into business in Kendall County."
Costin said they give the counties a chance to make improvements.
"We'll always go back and update someone's score if they make improvements to their website," he said.
Costin did credit the county for having annual budget and audit information online, something that he noted is probably the hardest thing to do.
"That's a good start for improvement, they have all of their annual budgets up for the last five years and all of their audits up for the last five years," he said.
However, the audits for four of the last five years were not searchable so the county only received partial credit.
Costin said to get a passing grade, 80 percent, Kendall County would have to make those many changes.
"They probably already have calculations for salary and benefit information it' s just the desire to put that up," he said.
We've made progress
County Board Chairman John Purcell said the county has been working to get more information on their website and that in a year they would be able to get a passing grade.
He said he believes they have made a lot of progress
"There is more information that will be coming forward. It's just that we have a limited staff and there's only so many things you can do," he said.
Purcell also noted that the county would comply with a new law signed by the governor this year that requires government agencies to post salary and benefit information for employees who are part of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.
Regarding lobbying information Purcell said that category left him scratching his head.
"We don't have a lobbyist," he said. "My lobbying is I call my state reps or state senators and I say, 'Hey I don't like this or like that' or send them a letter."
Purcell adds that he recalls the study but hadn't thoroughly reviewed a copy of it.
He said he has talked with Treasurer Jill Ferko about getting more billing information online and the county will do what it can.
"Without knowing exactly what they are looking for, I can't comment specifically, but we are looking at putting some more information on the website," he said. "If you want to call it more transparency that's fine but we're just trying to give people more information."
Regarding tax information on the county's website, Purcell notes that the county's homepage does have information about property tax inquiry.
While Kendall received a failing grade, neighboring Kane County was the only county to receive a 100 percent on their audit. Also passing the audit were Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Lake and Rock Island Counties.
"Are we making as much progress as DuPage County or as quickly as they are? Yeah, probably not but we're not laying off masses of people like some of those other counties," Purcell said.
Costin said he doesn't buy the excuse that smaller counties have a tougher time complying and the information they are asking for can be requested under FOIA.
"I don't think it's harder for smaller government agencies to be transparent. They are required to do the same types of documentation that larger government agencies are required to do," he said.