NEWARK — New Jersey has an average of one government-related entity every 3.8 square miles, and many of them do not keep the public adequately informed about their operations, a government watchdog agency’s report released Tuesday says.
The state Comptroller’s Office found more than a third of New Jersey’s independent local authorities and commissions do not have websites, and only 3 percent of them post financial reports online. Of those that do offer information online, many omit basic details such as financial reports, schedules, agendas or meeting minutes, the report said.
The Comptroller’s Office analyzed the level of online transparency of the state’s 587 independent local authorities and commissions that together spend more than $5 billion of public money annually and have more than $5 billion in public debt.
They also account for about 10,000 employees in the state pension system.
Only seven agencies satisfied all of the transparency measures the comptroller’s office used to test how well they keep the public informed, the report says.
“Too often the public never hears about these local agencies until scandals unfold,” State Comptroller Matthew Boxer said in a written statement. “But we pay for these agencies every day — when we pay tolls, when we pay our water bills and when we pay our property taxes.”
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, has been pushing for legislation that would require government agencies to post financial information online and compel compliance with the state’s Open Public Records and Meetings acts. Weinberg issued a statement Tuesday saying the state’s independent local and regional authorities “are shirking their responsibility to transparency,” adding she was not surprised by the comptroller’s findings.
“These agencies have acted with little to no accountability of spending and indebtedness and have contributed to the sky-high cost of government in the Garden State,” Weinberg said.
The sweeping criticism of government entities that fail to maintain websites doesn’t take into account that designing, staffing and updating websites takes money, said Jon Moran, a legislative analyst with the state League of Municipalities.
“I think at those agencies that are currently better able to inform the public, you’ll find their administrative costs are higher than others,” Moran said.
At a time when municipalities and other local government entities are being asked to cut critical services, a website may not be a top priority, Moran said.
He cited the example of the state’s many volunteer fire districts, where the struggle to cover basic operational costs and recruit enough members for all-volunteer squads may outweigh the need to make financial disclosures available online.
“When local officials are asked as never before to be careful stewards of every penny, we really have to consider the costs and benefits of anything that could become a mandate,” Moran said.
The Comptroller’s Office report recommends that all government entities create websites that make basic contact information, mission statements, agendas and schedules and financial disclosures publicly available, among other information. It argues the absence of such information allows the agencies to operate with minimal public scrutiny.
“For too long, many local authorities and commissions in New Jersey have acted like private clubs, publicizing agency information only when it suits their needs,” Boxer said. “New Jersey residents are entitled to information about the operations of all of the government entities they fund — and those government entities must do a better job of providing the public with access to that information.”