Sunshine Week: Which northern Utah city's website is the most transparent?

Monday , March 14, 2016 - 11:18 PM

LEIA LARSEN, MITCH SHAW, BECKY WRIGHT, MARK SAAL
Standard-Examiner Staff

It sounds like a cliche — but what a difference a year makes.

During Sunshine Week 2015, the Standard-Examiner evaluated and scored the transparency of counties, cities and school districts in our coverage area. It revealed a lot about the ways local governments provide valuable information to the public and highlighted areas where they could improve.

One year later, we’re pleased to say nearly every government entity took the feedback to heart — some remarkably so.

This year, the Standard-Examiner did a slightly scaled down version of our transparency audit so we could focus on bigger projects to come. We evaluated local governments’ websites to see how their transparency improved over the past 12 months.

As a refresher, our website transparency scoring system docks and awards points for things like posting minutes, agendas and budgets for the last three years online. We evaluated each city’s website for how easy it is to find public information, like meeting notifications and record request forms. The scoring system all adds up to a total of 35 possible points, although a few bonus points were awarded for posting audio of meetings, meeting packets and draft minutes online. 

You can find a complete breakdown of each city website’s score here.

Without further ado, here’s how local cities are working to make more information available to the public online. We’ll publish an update on counties and school districts later this week.

OGDEN

2015 website score: 27.5 (out of 35)
2016 website score: 31 (out of 35)

A year ago, Ogden was a standout city in the Standard-Examiner’s transparency audit. If it had a weakness, it was a lack of accessibility to detailed city council minutes — they were difficult, if not impossible, to find on the website. At the time, Recorder Tracy Hansen said city officials were aware of the problem, and were working on it.

They’re still working. The problem, Hansen said, is the city is still waiting on a new website, which would go live at the earliest this fall. “I feel like we’re in a holding pattern,” Hansen said. “It’s extremely frustrating. This has been a problem for quite some time.”

Hansen hopes the new website will be more user-friendly for people searching for records, and have features like “searchable minutes.” “Most often, they want minutes, they want code enforcement records, they want building permit info,” she said. “That’s what they’re looking for.”

Ogden did rack up more points this year because they now have meeting documents going back three years instead of two and for slightly improving their search feature. 

LAYTON
2015 website score: 36.5 (out of 35)
2016 website score: 36.5 (out of 35)

Layton didn’t make any major changes to its website compared to last year, not that they needed to. They got one of the highest scores for online transparency in 2015. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t still trying to improve.

“We have meetings, and very often we talk about how to promote the city and get our message out. We get so little coverage in the media,” said Recorder Thieda Wellman. 

Future plans include making it easier to fill out building permit applications online. Citizens can already pay bills online and even register their kids for sports online.

BOUNTIFUL
2015 website score: 24.5 (out of 35)
2016 website score: 26 (out of 35)

Bountiful has also revamped its website since last year’s audit. The site now has a handy phone directory link that appears on each page. The city also added archived council minutes dating back to 1981 and improved the site’s search function.

The site still doesn’t include phone numbers for the mayor or city council, and there isn’t information on how to request public records through GRAMA — two areas where the city lost points last year.

City Recorder Shawna Andrus says the site is still “a work in progress” and will continue to be upgraded.

ROY
2015 website score: 24 (out of 35)
2016 website score: 32 (out of 35)

Last year, Roy posted one of the worst scores in the SE’s transparency audit. City Recorder Amy Mortenson says that was a difficult — but important — pill to swallow.

“You might think you’re being transparent, because you’re doing what you’ve always done. But until someone mentions it, you don’t know folks are struggling to find things,” she said.

After receiving their score, Mortenson said city officials discussed things they thought people would want available on the website  — like minutes, budgets, the records requests form and contact information. These items are now listed as quick links on the home page. The website now includes a link to the state’s transparency.utah.gov website.

Mortenson thinks the improvements will continue. Officials recently issued a request for proposals to design a new website for the city. “We want it more interactive,” she said. “Email and text-message notices, 911 alerts — we’re looking into all of that.”

CLEARFIELD
2015 website score: 34.5 (out of 35)
2016 website score: 35 (out of 35)

Clearfield’s website continues to shine. It received a perfect score this year, though it was partly saved by a bonus point for including the city council’s meeting packets with its agendas. It lost a point for not listing expenditures online.

Though the website is intuitive and provides plenty of useful information, City Recorder Nancy Dean said officials continually look for ways to improve their transparency. 

“We’ve added planning commission minutes to the website. We’ve also added link to our YouTube station,” she said. “So now our residents can go and see video introducing new city council members.”

KAYSVILLE
2015 website score: 30.5 (out of 35)
2016 website score: 36 (out of 35)

Kaysville has completely redesigned its website, and the changes are more than cosmetic.

The site’s new “minutes and agendas” page provides access to city council meeting materials from the past four years, including audio and video. Last year the city lost points for not posting previous years’ budgets, but now has the past five years’ available.

A new interactive map allows citizens to find city landmarks and the locations of important services, as well as see the distance between two points. There’s also a link to livestreams of city council meetings, which Mayor Steve Hiatt is especially proud of. 

Hiatt said the city took the Standard-Examiner’s 2015 audit to heart. For a one-time investment of $2,500, the city hired an outside firm to revamp its website, making it more user-friendly and easier to navigate. “(Prior to the new site) we had done all the legwork, but the material was poorly organized,” he said. “We’re pretty happy with what we have now.”

SYRACUSE
2015 website score: 26 (out of 35)
2016 website score: 27 (out of 35)

Among the few changes made to Syracuse’s website since last year’s audit, the city now posts upcoming meetings on its community calendar, added meeting materials for 2015 city council meetings and is up-to-date posting those materials for 2016.

Two major areas of concern from last year’s audit — a non-functioning search engine and missing phone numbers for elected officials — were not addressed. Syracuse City Recorder Cassie Brown was not able to be reached for this story.

FARMINGTON
2015 website score: 30 (out of 35)
2016 website score: 31.5 (out of 35)

Holly Gadd, city recorder for Farmington, admitted last year’s transparency audit didn’t tell her anything she didn’t already know. “It was things we were planning on working on — we just hadn’t gotten to them,” she said.

She said the city would like to include the city code on its website and is in contact with a company to make that happen. The city is also preparing to launch a new website in the next week or two, hopefully with more pictures, calendars, street closing notices and more, Gadd said.

City council members’ phone numbers remain unavailable on the site, though email addresses are there. “The city council members themselves prefer emails,” Gadd said.

The recorder said she’s also trying to get more of the city’s most-used forms on the website, so residents can submit them online.

CLINTON
2015 website score: 27.5 (out of 35)
2016 website score: 32 (out of 35)

Clinton made good improvements to its website, including a new page dedicated to requesting public records that features instructions and cost information. The site could still use budget information for the past three years so the public can compare past and current finances, though.

“I really do think (last year’s audit) was good, and it pointed out a couple of things to me that I could work on,” Deputy Recorder Lisa Titensor said. 

BRIGHAM CITY
2015 website score: 31 (out of 35)
2016 website score: 31 (out of 35)

In 2015, Brigham City’s website scored high marks and managed to improve some in the past year.

The city’s website lost points last year for not including elected officials’ phone numbers, but since then, it’s added phone numbers for all five council members. However, numbers are still missing for the mayor, city administrator and city recorder.

The city also added a lengthy budget summary to its site, which City Recorder Mary Kate Christensen said was a result of last year’s audit.

Still, finding budgets on the website is a bit cumbersome. We could only find them for the past two years and the website doesn’t have any expenditures posted. The website would benefit from a dedicated “finance” page like many other city websites have.

NORTH OGDEN
2015 website score: 30 (out of 35)
2016 website score: 34.5 (out of 35)

Since last year’s audit, North Ogden has debuted a new website. It’s a bit more intuitive, with items like agendas and meetings, and contact information for council members just a click away. Draft minutes are also published on the site.

While public records requests still aren’t as streamlined as they are in many other cities, North Ogden has made some strides. City Recorder S. Annette Spendlove added an email contact on the records page, allowing those seeking information to email their requests — something that couldn’t be done in the past.

North Ogden also excels at providing contact information, both emails and personal phone numbers, for its elected officials. If the city would add expenditures to the finance page, it would have a perfect score. 

NORTH SALT LAKE
2015 website score: 35 (out of 35)
2016 website score: 35 (out of 35)

North Salt Lake’s motto seems to be, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” The city got a perfect score on its website in 2015, and not much has changed since. We would, however, like to see the city publish its fees for public records requests

SOUTH OGDEN
2015 website score: 26 (out of 35)
2016 website score: 33.5 (out of 35)

In 2015, South Ogden’s website lost points for not including information on GRAMA requests. But now, if you search for “GRAMA,” you’ll find a records request page that includes fee information, though it’s tough to find. GRAMA requests can now be submitted directly from the website, a major upgrade from last year.

The city also lost points last year for its city council minutes archive, which featured only about a year’s worth of minutes. Since then, the city has added minutes back to December 2014, but still falls short of the preferred three-year archive.

South Ogden deserves big kudos for its financial transparency. It has its budgets posted back to 2010 and it also posts monthly financial reports.

CENTERVILLE
2015 website score: 31 (out of 35)
2016 website score: 33 (out of 35)

Last year, Centerville’s website was one of the area’s most transparent. And this year, the city took it up a notch. As of March 1, Centerville lets residents live stream city council meetings through its YouTube channel.

“Our new city council members wanted this,” said City Recorder Marsha L. Morrow. “We’re striving for better transparency.”

The city also updated its contact page to make it easier to contact elected officials and staff members via telephone. Citizens must use an online form to email them. The city could improve the site by making the public records GRAMA request form easier to find and making it easier to submit via email or online.

To see how all the cities stack up on transparency, taking information from last year’s audit and combining it with our updated audit of websites, browse our interactive map:

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