Group rates transparency of county websites

Benton County got better marks than Franklin County in a recent review of public transparency by county websites.

Sunshine Review, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization, graded county websites nationwide as part of its effort to get local governments to become more transparent online.

Washington got an A for its website, while Benton County received a B- and Franklin County a C-. The average grade for the state's counties was a C.

County grades were based on a checklist of items the organization considers necessary for transparency, including information about elected officials, department heads, public meetings, budgets, audits, contracts, taxes, public records, lobbying, permits and zoning.

Mike Barnhart, Sunshine Review's president, said the internet is where people look for information on their government.

It's a cost-effective way for local governments to be proactive in disclosing information, he said. The information already is available without someone making a public records request.

Sunshine Review has freelancers, editors and citizens rate government websites using the transparency checklist, Barnhart said. The nonprofit has rated about 6,000 websites since it started the project in 2008.

The group uses wiki software, which allows readers to update the information on different websites, he said. The group also updates the ratings by requests from the government agencies and is getting ready to start rating the state websites all over again.

One of the group's criticisms of Benton County's website was that individual contact information for county commissioners wasn't available.

Barnhart said it's important for people to have a way to directly contact their elected officials.

But Commissioner Shon Small said all three commissioners share one contact point, which allows all three to be informed on issues citizens are concerned about.

Small said he wants the website to be transparent and user friendly. One thing he would like is for the county to expand the ability for citizens to pay bills online. Currently, citizens can pay property taxes online, but Small said he would like to see it available for other bills such as traffic fines.

Sunshine Review also graded Benton County down on lacking contracts and lobbying information on its website. But that information was not found on any of the state's county websites, according to the group's review.

Local governments need to be accountable to their citizens, Barnhart said. Having financial information available online is important because it shows citizens how their government spends tax dollars.

Franklin County Auditor Matt Beaton said he's working on changing the auditor's office website to make it more user friendly.

And Franklin County as a whole is looking at changing its website, said County Administrator Fred Bowen.

The website does include 2010 and 2011 budgets, financial statements from previous years and a link to the state auditor's website, where audit reports of the county are available. That information is under the accounting link on the auditor's main page.

The Sunshine Review's rating of Franklin County's website said the website lacked that information.

Barnhart said it sounds like Franklin County may have improved its website since the group reviewed it. He said Sunshine Review will redo the rating if asked.