Few towns offer much on Web
BY JOHN VANDIVER
When Maureen Nevin, an Asbury Park resident, has questions about her town, the city's official Web site is not the place she goes for answers.
To the south, in Barnegat, local government watchdog Michele Rosen says her situation is similar. Visits to the township Web site are generally for amusement, she says.
"It's terrible," Rosen said.
Without the ability to submit requests online for public records, without access to minutes of public meetings, without details about how tax dollars are spent, many municipal Web sites do little to promote a sense of open government, some critics say.
"We do not have sunshine in this state," Rosen said. "There are way too many obstacles put in the path of people who want information. Particularly at the local level."
National Sunshine Week begins today and aims to put a spotlight on what your rights are as a taxpayer and the information you're entitled to know.
Although Sunshine laws are designed to promote transparency in government, easy access to public information isn't always guaranteed.
As the Internet increasingly becomes a primary source of information, many local government Web sites aren't keeping pace with the needs of their customers — the taxpayer — some Web users contend.
To be sure, some municipalities have taken significant steps forward in making Web sites more relevant.
At the state level, New Jersey's official Web site recently received high marks for providing online services, publications and databases, according to the 2005 Brown University e-government survey. New Jersey's Web site ranked third in the study out of all 50 states.
At the state level, users can file requests for public records online, pay traffic tickets, and obtain mountains of data from various departments.
But in New Jersey, there are many layers of government and many places to search for information. How people interact with those layers in the virtual world varies greatly.
For instance, in Tuckerton, minutes of public and executive session meetings are posted online, helping borough residents stay connected with their local government. Yet in other places, the task of obtaining such basic information has evolved little since the advent of the Internet.
In Asbury Park, residents who want to learn what elected officials discussed at a meeting must make a trip to the city clerk's office.
"We have very frequent executive sessions every week here. We really need those minutes. Putting them on the Web site would be a big help," said Nevin, who has been engaged in numerous battles with city officials over access to information.
Nevin, the host of a local radio talk show, says making people jump through hoops for information creates a sense of mistrust within the public.
Lisa Coligan, a member of Project Vote Smart, a citizens' organization that tracks voting records of elected officials, said enabling people to make public records requests online would be a step forward in making municipalities more accountable.
At a minimum, minutes of government meetings, the schedules of those meetings, and biographies of elected officials should be posted on local government sites, she said.
"A lot of times what's on the local Web site is outdated," Coligan said. "It's not a problem for every county and state. It varies a lot."
As people increasingly turn to the Web for information, local governments need to respond to the demand, she said.
At the county level, the governments of Ocean and Monmouth counties provide a wide range of information online. Both counties also are in the midst of upgrading their Web sites and adding information.
"We're really trying to make it more useful. We want to make the Web site a window to Monmouth County," said William Heine, county spokesman.
However, neither county government appears ready to give residents the power to file requests for public documents online.
"I don't think we're there yet," Heine said. "I know we need to get there."
At the township level, recent improvements have been made to numerous Web sites. Others are hoping to unveil redesigns in the months ahead.
In Middletown, the township home page states: "This site is currently being modified to better serve the community."
"The goal is to be more in tune with people's intuitions, and how they think, so they don't get lost in the maze," said Cindy Herrschaft, township spokeswoman.
Although Middletown is one of the few townships where residents can pay local taxes online, allowing public records requests to be made on the Internet is another matter.
There are no immediate plans for such a mechanism, but it is an improvement worth considering, Herrschaft said.
For Rosen, there's no reasonable explanation why all towns don't post on Web sites basic public information, such as minutes of meetings, municipal codes and budgets.
"It's such a process to go through. Why should a citizen have to make more than one trip for something that should be readily available? Things should be much easier to find out," she said.
ON THE WEB: Visit our Web site, www.app.com, and click on this story for links to: The State of New Jersey, Monmouth County, Ocean County, Sunshine Week and Center for Digital Government.
See Asbury Radio's Efforts to Further Open Government in Asbury Park
Asbury Park Press published a feature on Asbury Radio on Sept. 8, 2005, in the Asbury Park-Ocean Reporter, Bernadette Scott. Here is the link:
Thanks, Bob Deerin, for immortalizing Restore by the Shore (now Asbury Radio) in your Annual "Deerin's Dialogue Great People Award!". I'm proud that you selected me a second time as your pick for "Best Radio Broadcaster". And those comments from the Senator humble me to the core! Hard questions, in deed.
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From The Coaster, Sept. 1, 2005