County website gets failing score from watchdog group

Posted: Jan. 2, 2013 9:01 am Updated: Jan. 23, 2013 9:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

An Illinois government watchdog group says Adams County's website does not provide enough information to residents, but local officials say improvements already are in the works.

In its review, the Illinois Policy Institute -- a nonpartisan research organization -- gave Adams County a failing score of 43.875 out of a possible 100. The county also was penalized for not placing vendor or union contracts online, not posting enough salary and benefit information, and not naming any organizations it belongs to that may lobby on its behalf.

Brian Costin, director of government reform at the Illinois Policy Institute, said the organization developed its own grading system. It is separated into different categories: elected and administrative officials, meeting information, Freedom of Information Act, budgets, financial audits, expenditures, salary and benefits, contracts, lobbying and taxes. Fulfilling each checkpoint is worth 10 points.

A score of 60 is considered a passing grade by the organization. The county is not obligated to fulfill the recommendations of the group.

In its review of West-Central Illinois counties, only Macoupin County passed, receiving a score of 76.35. Costin said most counties outside of northern Illinois failed the transparency audit.

"There were only a couple areas which we saw counties do fair in, and those were things that were required by the state of Illinois," he said.

The state requires Freedom of Information Act information and meeting minutes, agendas and calendars posted if the local government has a website. The Illinois Policy Institute believes more information should be posted.

"Every taxpayer -- no matter if you are in a big county, small county -- has the right to know how their tax dollars are being spent, and you shouldn't have to jump through hoops to get access to that information," Costin said.

He said he has been in contact with Adams County Information Technology Director John Frankenhoff.

"That's a positive response," Costin said. "I'd say one in five would have someone return their emails and contact us and say "What can we do better?' "

Frankenhoff said it would not be difficult to make some of the suggested improvements. One way to increase the counties score is to place email addresses online for County Board members. Frankenhoff said phone numbers already area listed.

"There are some things that we can improve and become more transparent," he said.

The organization also seeks to have individual expenditures and check registers posted.

In 2011, the Adams County Board approved a transparency ordinance to post accounts payable check vouchers, accounts payable source documents and signed union contracts. The county posted the check vouchers for a few months but stopped after it ran into problems.

"What we discovered is that there were things going out online that shouldn't have been -- personal information and such," Frankenhoff said. "It was too much work for somebody to go through hundreds and hundreds of documents and make sure they got every credit card, every driver's license and all that stuff crossed out. I just felt that it was too much of a risk."

The transparency audit found that the county only had budgets available for the previous year. Treasurer Terry Asher said he believed that many of the budgets were already on the site.

"I keep a rolling 12-month total (of budget revenues, expenses and fund balances)," Asher said. "Of course, logic there is the last 12 months people are interested in. After that ... I just keep it simple. I keep the last (reports) fiscal year out there."

The county has final budget reports for the last four fiscal years posted.

"We don't have a dedicated budget report other than the spreadsheets we have," Asher said.

He said his office has made strides to place audits online. The county has the last four years on its website.

Costin said the Illinois Policy Institute plans to continue to review local government websites, including plans to review those of the 100 largest communities and the 100 largest school districts in the state.

"There's almost 7,000 local government agencies in Illinois," he said. "So we won't be able to hit them all, but we'll try to do our best."