June 25, 2018
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Maine governments given low marks on website transparency, but officials call national study flawed

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — State and county officials on Friday assailed a study from a national group that gave governments in Maine, particularly its five largest counties, low or failing marks for website transparency.

Sunshine Review, a nonprofit, pro-transparency organization, gave Maine a grade of “C” overall. While it gave relatively high marks to www.maine.gov, the state government’s website, it gave the five largest counties an “F” and the nine largest school districts a “D.”

“Maine’s county and school websites are appalling and lack the basic information that taxpayers deserve to know,” said Michael Barnhart, president of Sunshine Review, in a press release. “It is very rare that Sunshine Review awards an ‘F’ grade, but Maine’s county websites were so inadequate, we were left with no other option. Citizens need to have information on how the public business is conducted and how public money is spent. Without this information, citizens cannot hold government accountable.”

Greg Zinser, York County’s manager, said Friday that he found the study “offensive toward government.”

“As far as York County goes, I’m not sure what website they looked at, but most of the information is up there,” said Zinser on Friday afternoon. “Maybe these Sunshine folks need to kind of shine the light on themselves and get some further data on what years they’re reporting and what websites they’re reporting on. This is going to cast such a negative light on governments in Maine. It’s damaging and it’s not even true.”

In addition to York, Sunshine Review surveyed websites for Cumberland, Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin counties; the cities of Portland, Lewiston, Bangor, South Portland, Auburn and Augusta, as well as Maine’s nine largest school districts. It looked for a number of elements on each website, such as budget information for past and present years, information about private contracts and bid processes, financial audits, contact information for public officials and other items.

Kristin McMurray, Sunshine Review’s managing editor, acknowledged that there might have been mistakes in the survey, but that her organization emailed the results to elected officials in the governments surveyed two weeks ago. She said she has heard only one response.

“We can go back in and revise some of that,” said McMurray. “What we tell our writers is to look for the items for five minutes on the website and if they can’t find it we’re willing to peg it as missing. Most citizens would spend about 30 seconds looking for the information. It’s kind of shocking that [Maine officials] are so upset.”

Mal Leary, vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition — who is also a freelance reporter for the Bangor Daily News — said he appreciates the Sunshine Review’s intent and the fact that its study will cause many governments to reassess their website transparency. But he also found flaws in the process.

Among Leary’s concerns is that the biggest government entities in a mostly rural state were surveyed, which he said doesn’t give credit to a lot of municipalities whose websites are very good.

One problem identified by Leary and others is that the survey looked for information that just doesn’t exist in Maine. The state’s website, for example, was criticized in the survey for not including information about taxpayer-funded lobbyists, but Leary said there is no law in Maine that requires such activities to be monitored.

“The way our lobbying law is set up, we have no mechanism to measure that,” said Leary. “That doesn’t seem to me to be a transparency issue.”

On the county government level, some government websites were whacked for not including information about building permits and zoning laws, when in Maine those issues are handled by municipal governments.

Bill Whitten, the assistant manager in Cumberland County, said most of the items the survey says his county doesn’t publish online are in fact there.

“We have put a lot of time and effort into our website,” said Whitten. “At first when I looked at this survey I said, ‘Wow, that’s not so good.’ Then I started looking into it. This whole thing is a joke.”

Bob Devlin, the administrator for Kennebec County, said despite the survey’s flaws, there are ways his county’s website could be improved, which is a process he said he will undertake as a result of the Sunshine Review’s survey.

“I’ve always felt that as a county, we’ve been very open,” said Devlin. “We have just 1.5 information technology people. Just keeping [the website] up and running keeps them very busy. Some staff members are able to add stuff to the website directly, but we need to do more of that. Sometimes the problem is just resource driven.”

Penobscot County Administrator Bill Collins agreed.

“The county commissioners and I do recognize that the website needs improvement,” he said. “We’re involved in that process. I wish the Sunshine Review had done their review six months from now as opposed to now.”

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