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How bright is the sunshine in your community?

This week is “Sunshine Week,” which celebrates access to public information and promotes understanding of the importance of open access in making democracy work.

After working several years in the local government arena in central Iowa, we've learned there are differences in the culture of transparency among the various local governments. As a “taxpayers” organization it is interesting to experience the differences in interpretation of what that term means, and how it influences our relationships and access. 

We’re mostly concerned with fiscal information – how money is collected and spent, and the value obtained. As a rule, local governments want the public to be aware of how well they’re managing the taxpayers’ funds. Today, the larger public entities have professional chief financial officers (CFO’s) who welcome the interest that is shown. They produce “Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports” (CAFR’s) which are prepared according to strict governmental accounting standards, then audited. Such consistency in reporting has gone a long way to splash sunshine on government finances. Any citizen can look at a CAFR and know they are getting information that is consistent, true and meaningful, at least according to generally accepted accounting standards.

Perhaps the differences are demonstrated more in the extent to which the local public entities go the extra mile to share and explain information. Here, the truly proactive entities separate themselves from the pack by embracing transparency – inviting us right into their processes.

For example, Broadlawns Hospital, the fifth largest property tax-supported entity in central Iowa, presses us to regularly attend and participate in its monthly Finance Committee meetings. We receive the same information as do board members, and we’re welcome to access any other information that may be needed or desired. Similarly, the Des Moines Independent Community School District (largest taxpayer supported entity) convenes a citizens budget advisory committee, on which we are invited to serve, each year during the budget development process.

CFO Thomas Harper provides access to subject matter experts and will help explore any topic in which the group has interest. These sessions are extra work for the district but the trust and shared understanding that is developed pays dividends for all parties. We have a better understanding of district finances; they have people who can support them when tough decisions need to be made.

Today there is more visibility than ever before to agendas and supporting documents for local board and council meetings. Most of the larger local governments (and some of the smaller ones) post this information online, making it easy for anyone to see the details of what is happening in their community or school district. But it is not universal yet even among the largest entities, for example the Polk County Board of Supervisors posts agendas and brief minutes, but none of the supporting documents.

One of the more mundane but critical aspects of transparency has to do with the ease of contacting people (who in turn, of course, have information). It’s frustrating when you need to call or e-mail someone, but can’t access a directory with individual phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

This is simple, but it might be the most fundamental piece of transparency: can you get to the real person who you believe is accountable for your issue?

Even in 2015 we still have local governments that try to control access to elected officials.

For example, the Dallas Center-Grimes Community Schools is running a bond special election on April 7, yet school board members cannot be contacted directly – they must go through a district-controlled filter. It’s hard to imagine why any elected official would wish to be so insulated from constituents, or why a superintendent would wish to keep them so insulated.

One easy way to celebrate Sunshine Week is to check your local government websites and see if you can find a directory with real people (both key staff and elected officials) and their contact information.

Or see if you can find the agenda and all materials from the next or the last council or board meeting. If you can, then call your board or council member to introduce yourself and say “thanks.”

If you can’t, ask for it.

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