Web access to state's city, county information found still lacking

A survey by the MDDC Press Association of city and county websites throughout Maryland found many fall short in providing minimum useful information to citizens in search of same.

/PM BlogSpace Report/ “Sunshine Week” was last week (March 12-18) – did you notice as it went by? – but the obscured-by-clouds view that Marylanders often have of the workings of their government remains, as a survey of local-government websites shows very nicely.

The Maryland-Delaware DC Press Association, a group of news organizations covering two states and one colonial possession, recently surveyed the (mostly working) websites of 156 towns and counties in the Free State (not all the state’s 181 jurisdictions have one). The question was how well the sites allowed citizens to dig out important information about their own governments.

How many cities and counties checked all boxes of fourteen kinds of information the newsies were looking for? Two – Garrett County, in Western Maryland, and the City of Laurel in Prince George’s County.

The rest were spotty or worse in providing location, hours and elected officials with contact information; worse still at meeting dates and agendas (which a 2016 state law now requires available in advance), and worst of all in how the public money is spent, budgets, procurement and bidding information, names of vendors and so forth.

Though the reporters didn’t dwell on it, the survey showed that bidding information, vendors and budgets are sometimes hardest to track down and interpret and that, we would think, is no accident. Most of the scandals that erupt from time to time, often covered by these same papers, involve collusion and corruption in the spending of public money with favored recipients, and longtime gadflies of local politics know that it is literally business as usual that these areas are hardest to find on web sites or in public records.

“Maryland’s local government websites illustrate a range of resources and philosophies about sharing information,” the Frederick News-Post account said. “Larger governments might have an information technology department to do the work. Smaller ones might rely on one person to maintain a site from home in his or her spare time.” The article has vignettes from Accident in Garrett County to Denton in Caroline County, both familiar to vacationers from the state’s populous midsection.

“On average, a Maryland local government with a working website provided information in 8.6 of the 14 categories measured in the study,” the News-Post article added, noting that the greater the population the more likely the website was to have a higher level. Every jurisdiction of 5,000 or more residents had a website, but “of the 25 places without websites, 20 had fewer than 1,000 residents.”

The quite thorough and complete survey was the work of nearly all the state’s newspapers but spearheaded by the News-Post and Salisbury Daily Times; the version to which we have linked was written by Andrew Schotz of the News-Post.