Students and school districts are not the only ones who receive letter grades on their performance. Localities and states are graded on transparency and citizen access to public information.
The Sunshine Review, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to government accountability and transparency, has been reviewing state, county, city and school division websites since 2008, using a checklist of 10 items anyone should be able to find. The lists for localities and school divisions differ in some areas, but each includes at least 10 areas that include public records.
Locally, two counties and two school divisions earned top grades of A-plus. Most communities and school divisions earned Bs and B-minuses. Surry County received an F because of incomplete or missing public information on its website.
Almost any record is public
While each state has its own Freedom of Information laws — often know as Right to Know or FOIA laws — some records, such as budgets, permit and zoning information, policies, tax rates, meetings and minutes, are universal expected to be open to the public.
In Virginia's 45-year-old FOIA, almost anything that is not the subject of an exemption in the law or considered unavailable to the public by another law, such as the Federal Education Right to Privacy Act, is a public record.
"The definition of record is pretty broad," said College of William and Mary law professor Jim Heller. "The presumption should be you have a right to know all sorts of things."
Advocates of government transparency say government websites should provide a trove of public information.
Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, said every locality and school division should have budget documents online. In fact, the budget is the first item on the Sunshine Review's transparency checklist. The Review says proposed and current budgets should be listed and easily accessible. Past budgets and year-end audit reports should be available. Stanley and the Sunshine Review both advocate easily searchable budgets. The Sunshine Review also recommends cities, counties and school divisions post their check registers online so people can see where their tax dollars are going in real time.
The results of any audits should be posted online.
Agendas and minutes of all boards, councils, work groups and committees should be accessible on a website. Citizens should be able to find the date, time and location of the meeting easily. Governments also should post all board or council packets online at the same time they deliver them to the governing body.
Meetings and videos of past meetings should be stored online and easy to access.
Who works for you
Citizens should be able to find information about elected officials online. That information should include length of terms and the date terms are up, contact information, including phone numbers and email, party affiliation, if applicable, any committee appointments, and financial disclosures and statements about potential conflict of interest.
Stanley and others also say that lists of all employees should be public. For school divisions, cities and counties, the Sunshine Review recommends listing salary schedules. In Virginia, salaries of public employees are open records.
For cities and counties, zoning and permit decisions and information should be posted online. William and Mary political science professor John McGlennon, who also is a James City County supervisor, said people should be able to track decisions being made.
"For example, if there is a rezoning case, you should be able to track the status," he said.
Localities also should provide links to assessors' offices and clear information about real estate assessments. That page should also provide information about the locality's appeals process.
Cities and localities should provide clear information about local taxes. This should include each type of tax collected, how to pay it, the tax rates and any fees associated with late payment.
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