Open Government, Transparency, and Accountability
What could be more important than trust in our local government? Efforts to provide transparency are what builds trust.
Lack of transparency in our local government was recently brought into the spotlight during the Pedestrian Bridge discussion, where a feasibility study conducted by FDOT recommending against building the bridge was never disclosed to the public. Even after a formal records request was made to the Village, this document was not disclosed. Councilman Henry Rosenthal discovered this document through a records request submitted to FDOT.
So, it appears we have a transparency problem with governance in the Village and the Pedestrian Bridge debacle illustrates the point.
Perhaps the most important goal of the Islamorada Community Alliance is to assure that our local government becomes more transparent, participatory and a collaboration with the residents. We need to know what’s happening and get more involved in local decisions that impact our community before it’s too late!
Here is the short list of transparency issues we have identified:
Through open government efforts, the ICA aims to assure our Village government:
Click this link to read the detailed analysis on Transparency in Government
Openness, Transparency, and Accountability
Perhaps the most important goal of the Islamorada Community Alliance is to assure that our local government becomes more transparent, participatory and collaborative, all fancy words for saying that our residents need to know what’s happening and get more involved in local decisions that impact our community… before important decisions are made!
Open government efforts are intended to assure our Village government follows important efforts that happen when there is transparency in government:
After all, this is the Sunshine State! We are to follow the principles spelled out in Florida’s “Government-in-the-Sunshine-Manual.”
Click here to view/download the 2020 edition, a great resource, tool
The Introduction in the Sunshine Manual explains the importance of open government.
Our system of open government is a valued and intrinsic part of the heritage of our state. Each day, Floridians use these laws to inform themselves as citizens, to attend government meetings and to review government records. As a result of these efforts, government leaders can be held accountable for their actions.”
Keeping Residents Informed
When local governments are proactively promoting transparency, it speaks volumes to their constituents and helps generate a true sense of trust.
In the past, some significant decisions that impact the quality of life for residents have not been made at public meetings. An example is the DEVELOPMENT REVIEW PROCESS. The purpose of the review according to Sec. 30-211 of the Village code is
“to promote the public health, safety, morals, convenience, comfort, amenities, prosperity, order, appearance, and general welfare of the community.”
And yet there is no mechanism in the code to assure that the “community” knows anything about many development plans that will impact our Village and its residents until it is too late to voice concerns. An example is approval of a site plan:
“Based on compliance with this chapter and after review by responsible village departments, the director shall approve, approve with conditions or deny the site plan application.”
The only notice required when site plans, minor conditional uses, or variances are to be approved by the Planning Director is a “notice of intent to approve,” placed on the property for 30 days, and a notice mailed to all property owners, that share a common boundary line with the property subject to the application.
If you aren’t an adjoining property owner and missed the posted sign, you may be out of luck. How often are impacted members of the public totally unaware of the notice of intent to approve, by the Director of Planning? And the result is no public hearing, no public discussion and no going back.
Example: Who saw the site plan for Sea Breeze mobile home park before it was approved?
Click here to read the Seabreeze Trailer Park case study
The value of two-way communication is that it shows that the local government is listening and responding to the community’s needs.
Public comment can create great predicaments:
Pedestrian Bridge: Consider the long history of this project. For nearly four years the residents of Islamorada felt left out of the decision-making. The Village Council, with Councilman Henry Rosenthal’s persistence, put the bridge on the agenda one more time on January 14, 2021. And this time members of the public had five council members who heard their public comment loud and clear.
Was public involvement four years late? Why? Was critical information withheld? Was the public given adequate opportunity to get involved?
Click here to read Councilman Rosenthal’s statement about the pedestrian bridge and transparency
Click here to read a sample public comment regarding the lack of transparency regarding the pedestrian bridge
Virtual Meeting issues
As the Village government conducts virtual meetings in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the goal should be to do so in a way that maintains and promotes public access to Village business.
Now more than ever, transparency in government is vital to giving the public confidence in its government. The Village must ensure members of the public understand the technology and can weigh in on action.
While the Village adapted well in a short period of time, virtual meetings haven’t always been ideal.
Click here to read the ICA opinion about the challenges Council meeting transparency during the pandemic
Technology Is a Key to Transparency
Advancements in technology have provided new ways for local governments to share information publicly in ways that are efficient, cost-effective, and fast. The benefit of providing as much information to the public as possible is that it gives them an opportunity to analyze decisions the local officials make and provide valuable feedback to them.
The public is encouraged to watch the meetings on Monroe County’s MCTV Comcast Channel 77. Alternatively, the public may view the meeting streamed live on the Village website from their personal computer, tablet or phone. At least for the duration of the pandemic, the public is able to “virtually“ attend and participate in council meetings via Zoom.
LIVE and ON-DEMAND video webcasts of Village Council and LPA meetings have been upgraded to the multi-platform, open sourced H.264 format. This is intended to improve the ability of diverse devices and operating systems to stream video content. In addition, viewers are able to see the Village video content over Apple and Android devices in addition to Microsoft and other platforms. For questions or problems, contact the Village at: email@example.com
Closed captioning is the process of displaying text from the audio on the bottom of the TV or computer screen as people speak. Closed captioned Village Council meetings can be found on the archived meeting page on the Village website (under Village Council, View Council Meetings) at http://www.islamorada.fl.us/departments/communications/archived_meetings.php
Do not use the calendar, but rather page down to find the archived meetings further down. Click on the year to find the meeting you want to watch.
While watching the meeting that is available with closed captioning you will see a very small “cc” at the bottom right of the screen. Click on the “cc” to open closed captioning.
Closed captioned council meetings are posted to the website five to seven business days after the date of the meeting. Beginning in 2021, live council meetings will have closed captioning via some sources. This is especially helpful while folks are wearing masks and lip reading is impossible!
When the general public has questions, they need a place to get answers. Local governments that initiate processes to provide the information that matters most to citizens demonstrates that the government officials have their citizens’ best interests at heart.
Florida residents have the right to access and obtain public records. Chapter 119, Florida Statutes, commonly known as Florida‘s “Public Records Law,” provides information on public records in Florida, including policies, definitions, exemptions, general information on records access, inspection, examination and duplication of records. The Public Records Law presumes all government information and records are available to the public.
Click here to read ICA’s Capt. Ed Davidson’s research and documentation related to public records access.
The Florida Supreme Court has determined that public records are all materials made or received by an agency in connection with official business which are used to perpetuate, communicate, or formalize knowledge. They are not limited to traditional written documents. Emails to and from personal email accounts are considered public record if to or from a government official about government business.
Read the case study, Government by email
On January 14, 2021, the Village Council voted 4-1 (with Councilman Rosenthal dissenting) to change an unwritten policy that allowed the Village to charge a research fee for public records requests that take more than one hour to fill. The policy was changed by council so that the cost for research time to fill public record requests will remain the calculated staff cost, currently $26.44, but instead of the first hour being free, only the first half hour will be free. Now the charge will be broken into quarter-hour increments.
The first place that citizens usually go when they want to get information about their community is their local government’s website. It makes sense that this is the place that local governments should focus their attention when providing access to the information that citizens want most.
When citizens have access to a significant portion of public documents, it saves clerks and other local government workers considerable time.
Compliance with Americans With Disability Act (ADA)
Several years ago, Islamorada was sued by an individual because the Village website was not believed to be ADA-compliant. The suit was settled out of court and costs were paid by the Village insurance.
However, early in 2020, access to many Village public records was removed from the Village website.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are developed through a process referred to as the W3C process that is in cooperation with individuals and organizations around the world. Such guidelines detail best practices for ensuring software technology, that assists users with disabilities, can access the content in public websites. Some web content cannot be accessed through the software typically used. For example, photographs cannot be seen but titles can provide a description of the content to comply with the guidelines.
For documents or content that cannot be translated to audio format, an ADA compliance statement on the web page must provide instructions to assist the disabled – usually the phone number of a compliance officer that can provide the information desired. At the Village, that employee is the Human Resource Manager and contact information is provided on the website.
Click here to see the detailed instructions on the Village website
It was explained by the Village that to avoid making the Village website content ADA non-compliant, content that is not considered compliant was simply removed from the site. A public record request can be made to get the information.
It seems that now neither the general public nor the person with the disability can access this content without staff assistance during business hours: a public records request for a majority of people or a phone call to the compliance office at the Village for a person with a disability.
There are numerous citizen committees with members appointed by the council. The expectation is that the committees will help the council better understand issues within the community. But how much transparency is there with the activities of the committees? Can the general public reasonably participate in public meetings of the committees?
There are a significant number of the committee meetings that are canceled because there is no quorum available. While no decisions can be made without a quorum, worthwhile discussions at a publicly-announced meeting should be welcomed and beneficial. Why are so many committee meetings simply canceled if a quorum is not available?
According to the Sunshine Manual:
“The Sunshine Law extends to the discussions and deliberations as well as the formal action taken by a public board or commission. There is no requirement that a quorum be present or that an item be listed on a board agenda in order for a meeting of members of a public board or commission to be subject to s. 286.011, F.S. As the Florida Supreme Court said, “collective inquiry and discussion stages” are embraced within the terms of the statute. Town of Palm Beach v. Gradison, 296 So. 2d 474, 477 (Fla. 1974).”
Click here to learn more about the Village committees and transparency recommendations
Email Alerts from Village
Residents can sign up for email alerts regarding weather conditions and public safety Issues as well as Village email news by going to the Village website, under “Residents.” While these are the only notifications currently available, it appears the notification process may be expanded, as the Village website does allow for specific departments to provide notifications.
By the beginning of 2021, almost 700 people or organizations were on the list to receive Village notifications.
Perhaps the Village can use this procedure to notify subscribers when a new Council meeting agenda is posted on the website, when applications for site plan review and conditional uses are being considered and when they are approved.
Certainly all Requests for Proposals (RFP) and Requests for Qualifications (RFQ) should be available to interested parties via the notification system.
Wouldn’t the public be interested in knowing that an RFP was advertised for the development of a Master Plan for the Fills?
Click here to see the Fills RFP 21-01
Not only has social media become important in our personal lives, it can be important in business and local government, too. It is often the most proficient way to share information. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube provide outlets to share information proactively with the general public for announcing events, live-streaming government meetings, and communicating policy changes. In today’s world, many people spend lots of their time on social media, and that means that social media is a great place to get information to them fast.
Village Council approved a pilot program at the February 25 council meeting to provide the public with Village information via social media. The pilot program will be a four-month trial costing $24,000.
Most of the money available to run the local government comes directly from taxpayers through tax dollars and fees for services. In Islamorada, the current budget demonstrates that local taxpayers contribute a vast majority of the $15.7 million in our current general fund budget, plus the nearly $7 million in reserve. Our council makes the critical decisions as to the expenditures and the citizens (taxpayers) should act as the overseers, with the right and responsibility to know how funds are spent.
The same principles apply to Islamorada. However, the segments of US1 running through Islamorada failed the previous traffic study conducted by Monroe County, by receiving a “D” rating with no reserve capacity. Roget Bryan, the village attorney, stated in 2019 that the failing grade didn’t matter because Islamorada followed the LOS grade achieved on US1 for all of Monroe County. Now that all of US1 has failed in Monroe County, the Village Staff and council need to address this problem.
When you look for financial information on the Village website, under Finance Department, there are only a couple documents available:
Wouldn’t it be beneficial to have monthly finance reports available so revenues and expenditures can be monitored? In the past, monthly financial reports were provided. Is this another ADA issue? Are monthly financial statements generated and available through public record requests? Perhaps a monthly report could be included on the village website.
We have citizen committees to assist with a wide range of Village concerns. Why not a Finance Committee? The more a local government can provide in the way of transparency and oversight, the more it assures trust, honesty, and integrity in government leaders.
Another area where local governments can improve the public’s trust is by sharing policies publicly so residents feel comfortable that everyone is treated the same with no favoritism. It is important the public knows how the government officials are directed to handle issues and can hold them accountable. Code enforcement rules and requirements, committee minutes, council meeting minutes, financial documents, budgets and annual reports should all be easily accessible by the public.
Click here to see policy approved 1/14/2021 regarding cost of public record requests
Click here for opinions about costs of public records
Also important are the policies that govern the practices used to implement Village regulations and protect public facilities.
Founders Park is the centerpiece of our community, a facility used and loved by so many of our residents. Why isn’t the Founders Park event policy available on the Village website? The most recent policy, obtained through a public records request, is from 2007. Perhaps a review of the 13-year-old policy would be beneficial.
Click here to read about Founders Park and concerns about the events held there.
So how can we make our government more transparent? Click here to read Recommended Solutions