By Dave Berman and Stacey Barchenger
Brevard County’s government website is better than average, in terms of providing public access to information. But it has room for improvement, according to a study by the Florida First Amendment Foundation.
The Tallahassee-based foundation’s recently released analysis of the websites of Florida’s 67 counties and 47 of its cities also rated Palm Bay’s website as above the state average, but Melbourne’s as slightly below average.
The study rated government websites on more than 50 points in seven general categories — financial, accountability, meetings, contact information, records, ease of use and miscellaneous. The websites were evaluated by journalism students at the universities of Florida, Miami and South Florida who were asked if they could find specific information — ranging from budgets to neighborhood crime information — through a reasonable search.
Palm Bay received a score of 63, Brevard County got 62 and Melbourne got 51. The average score was 52.8 for cities and 50 for counties.
Brevard County Communications Director Don Walker said the county is continually looking to improve its website.
“We’re always working to be more transparent,” Walker said. “It’s always a work in progress. We realize we’re here for the taxpayers and the citizens.”
Lois Boisseau, Brevard County’s information systems manager, said the county will add things to its website if it notices a demand for them. The county website also has links to other sites not part of county government, such as Brevard Public Schools, and to the departments of elected county officials who operate independently.
People who want information not on the county website also have three other ways to get it via links from the site — filing a public records request, contacting the department head or contacting the webmaster.
The county website lost most of its potential points in two categories: accountability (getting three points out of 20) and financial (nine points out of 20). Among the accountability issues was a lack of a database of the names, titles and salaries of every county employee and a lack of a listing of all registered lobbyists. Its deficiencies related to financials included a lack of a check register showing payments to all vendors and a lack of interim financial reports by department for the most recent month or quarter.
Walker said it is important that government websites provide adequate access and information to the public.
Walker said the website “is the front door” to government.
Officials in Palm Bay have for years seen the city site as a gateway to City Hall. A redesigned website launched on March 3 improved accessibility. The web renovation cost about $32,000 initially and costs $7,200 annually to maintain. The First Amendment Foundation gave the city a perfect 10 in the area of website functionality.
City officials in Palm Bay dispute the city’s score, which was still 10.2 points above average.
The foundation gave the city two of 20 possible accountability points, and zeroes in employee salaries, vendors and current contracts categories.
But officials point out that information is available on a secondary website, which is linked from the main page. Some information is available with a bit of digging: The city was docked for not posting tax rates. Officials said it is in the budget.
“It’s certainly the logical place for it,” City Manager Sue Hann said. “If you’re the average Palm Bay citizen, you certainly would look in the budget.”
Still, the city plans to see if there are ways to improve.
“We really found that we’re serving as the model for others,” Hann said. “That’s not to say there’s nothing that can be improved.”
Melbourne landed 1.8 points below average on the foundation’s report card, faring poorly in areas of accountability (getting seven points out of 20) and public records (getting four points out of 16). It did receive 17 of 20 points for posting meeting information and rules and agendas online.
Cheryl Mall, the city’s spokeswoman, previously was tasked with redesigning the website.
“What happens often, and I can see that’s what happened with the Melbourne website, there’s so much stuff they grow beyond where anybody can find anything,” she said. “It’s like throwing stuff in a file drawer . . . It’s not categorized in a way you can find it.”
Mall said information about most common public requests — water bill questions, for example — already are online. But she said, as part of the redesign, the city will consider whether more public records should go live online.
“We want to make our website provide the excellent customer service that our employees do; and it will,” Mall said. “It’s a priority.”
In a statement accompanying release of the study, First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen said: “Many city and county websites include the stated goals of ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability,’ But this survey shows that, in many ways,these governments fall short of those goals. On most websites, it’s far easier to pay a water bill than it is to find out how much a government is paying to run the water department — and who’s selling services to the department.”
She said most cities and counties “have a long way to go before their governments can be considered proactively transparent.”
Contact Berman at 321-242-3649 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ByDaveBerman. Contact Barchenger at 321-242-3669 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @sbarchenger.
BEST AND WORST
Out of a possible score of 100:
Best county websites
Worst county websites
Best city websites
Fort Walton Beach 70
Worst city websites
DeFuniak Springs 24
Source: Florida First Amendment Foundation study
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