W.Va Counties Receive F in Transparency

By westvirginia on September 22, 2009
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The majority of county governments in West Virginia received F grades in areas of transparency, and some counties still don’t have websites. This is according to a new report released today (“Evaluation of West Virginia county websites“) by Sunshine Review, a project of the Sam Adams Alliance.

According to their website: “Sunshine Review empowers citizens across the country to share information with each other about their local units of government — cities, counties, school districts, and state agencies.” Sunshine Review reviews the transparency of city websites, county websites, school district websites, and state agency websites.

The report judges the websites, or lack of websites, in all of West Virginia’s 55 counties on the following criteria:

  • Whether the counties published their annual budget online.
  • Whether websites included information about their open meeting laws, public meeting notices, and meeting minutes.
  • Whether contact information for elected officials and administration officials was readily available.
  • Whether websites contained applications for building and zoning permits.
  • Whether the websites contained regular audit information, rule regarding contracts, bids, and vendor information.
  • Information about lobbyists working on behalf of the county.
  • Contact information for the person in charge of fulfilling open records requests
  • Information on taxes, state fees, and sources of income for each agency.

Based on the above criteria, very few counties made the grade and the ones that received passing grades did so only barely. No counties had information on on their contracts/bids, lobbying, or public records access. Only two counties posted their budget information online, and another two posted audit information on their county websites. Four counties posted their meeting notices/minutes online, and another four posted their tax information online. Six counties had information and applications for building/zoning permits available for download. Lastly, 13 counties posted contact information for elected officials online, while 16 posted contact information for administration officials online.

The best grades given went to Kanawha and Jefferson counties, which both received C-. Kanawha County receibed high marks for posting the audio and video of County Commission meetings, but received negative remarks for not posting audits, lobbyist data, or information on how to request public records. Jefferson County was praised for posting annual financial statements, as well as zoning information, audits, and tax records. They were also cited for not posting lobbyist data, contracts, or information on how to request public records.

Only Wood, Mineral, Greenbrier, Cabell, and Berkeley counties received the next lowest grade, D-. The remaining 48 West Virginia counties received an F grade. 27 of those did not have any website.

“The Sunshine Review community believes every county in the nation has a responsibility to make basic information easily available to the taxpayer,” said Kristin McMurray, managing editor of Sunshine Review. “We urge West Virginia residents to use the results of these evaluations to push for reform in their counties.”

“Citizens deserve to know what their government is doing and how their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent,” McMurray said. “We hope county officials will welcome our findings and begin taking the necessary steps to achieve greater open and honest government by meeting all ten points on the transparency checklist.”

It should be noted that most of the counties receiving the best grades were either in the fast-growing Eastern Panhandle (Jefferson, Mineral, Berkeley) or major population centers (Kanawha, Cabell, Wood). Sunshine Review’s transparency reports have had success at encouraging governments to improve their transparency. St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, and the Illinois counties of Dupage and Champaign were motivated to improve their transparency, citing Sunshine Review’s reports.

It remains to see what kind of impact this new Sunshine Review report will have on West Virginia’s counties.

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