A law requiring New Jersey’s several hundred government authorities, boards and commissions to post basic information online takes effect today, with some local entities still not compliant but most more transparent than ever.
The bill passed in January 2012 mandates that nearly 600 state, regional, county and local agencies need to have budgets, meeting schedules, contact lists and other things available on the Internet as a way to improve open government.
It allowed 13 months to do that, but some have yet to comply.
“In my mind, it’s a ridiculous law,” said Robert Spiegel, chief of the Seaville Volunteer Fire Company, who said they are working to post the required information online. “Everything was already as transparent as can be. Our information is posted on the Township Hall bulletin board for everyone to see.”
Nonetheless, seemingly many obscure government entities that had no Internet presence last year now have useful information online, such as financial documents and mission statements. These include fire districts, housing authorities, joint insurance funds, workforce investment boards and soil conservation districts.
“This is designed for more transparency in government so people can see what’s going on,” said Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, D-Gloucester, Camden, a primary sponsor of the law. “This should reduce the amount of (Open Public Records Act) requests, this should reduce the amount of paperwork. (This information) should be out there in the daylight for everyone to see.”
The bill was a direct response to a report by the Office of the State Comptroller that found there are 587 government entities in addition to the 566 municipal governments, 604 school district and 21 county governments that existed at the time.
It further found that only 3 percent of these other entities had financial information online even though they spent and accumulated debt in excess of an estimated $5 billion annually.
Pete McAleer, a spokesman for the Comptroller’s Office, said staff there plan to do a follow-up report now that the deadline has passed.
“Taxpayers are entitled to accessible information about the government entities they fund,” McAleer said. “Not only is that common sense, but now it’s the law.”
A follow-up may be just as exhaustive a task as the first report, though, because there is little uniformity in how the information is posted. Some entities have their own websites, and others have pages that are parts of other websites.
For instance, the Cape May County Pollution Control Financing Authority now has a single page accessible through the county’s website by clicking the “Boards and Commissions” link on the county’s homepage.
Meanwhile, the Minotola Fire Company had its own website built in the past year, with budgets accessible through the “Commissioners” link on its homepage. The site is not linked to on the Buena Borough website’s “Fire Departments” Web page, though.
“Maybe that’s grist for follow-up legislation,” Moriarty said.
An untold number of entities have posted most of the required information but technically not all of it.
The Ocean County Soil Conservation District has a lot of information on its website, for instance, but not meeting minutes for the past fiscal year, as required by law.
The Atlantic County Improvement Authority has an apparently thorough site, but it does not have a list of people or organizations that received more than $17,500 from the authority for rendered services, as also required by the law.
Many government entities have resisted moving information online, in general calling it an extra expense and labelling the new law in particular as an unfunded mandate.
However, simple websites can be made for a few hundred dollars in a few days or weeks. It could theoretically be done for free in a couple hours.
“If they were serious about meeting the law, they could have gotten the very minimum done,” said Troy Cawley, one of the co-owners of Middle Township-based CAM Web Design.
Cawley’s company offers simple designs for a few hundred dollars that could be done in a week or two. They have also made sites for nonprofit organizations at no charge.
He did say there is naturally more bureaucracy involved in creating a government website. A formal bid process, complying with federal accessibility laws and going through several layers of approval can slow down the project and add to its cost.
“I suspect it’s a reluctance to get into the whole process and not really wanting to get into some other sticky red tape,” he said.
The law also does not have any penalties for those authorities, boards or commissions that do not comply with the law, but even officials who have disagreed with it have taken steps to obey it.
Upper Township Clerk Barbara Young said the township’s four fire districts reached a shared services agreement with the township for it to host their essential information on its site. Only one has so far been posted, but Seaville Chief Spiegel said his company should have its information uploaded soon.
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