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CO: Despite Some Transparency, Arvada Website Comes Up A Little Short

A local government’s website often is the front line of communication, giving residents both a first impression and a deeper basis to determine whether elected officials have effectively established confidence and trust.

The City of Arvada has sought to put its best foot forward in some aspects of customer service and transparency. But a number of opportunities exist to improve the Arvada website and its usefulness to concerned taxpayers and other community residents. Analysis and suggestions are based on an informal site audit I performed on March 6-8.

Arvada is the 7th largest city in Colorado, with an estimated population of 109,000 residents. Located along Denver’s western edge in northern Jefferson County, the 144-year-old city experienced dramatic growth during the last half of the previous century.

Arvada is governed by an elected seven-member city council. The website clearly provides their names, email addresses and phone numbers, and other basic information. Site users can access a map of the city divided into the four represented districts. However, individual council members’ terms in office and upcoming election dates are not readily found. Voting records are not compiled in any sort of searchable format.

The council’s use of secret ballots to help fill a council vacancy at a January 10 meeting prompted a citizen lawsuit claiming a 2012 state sunshine law was violated. Overall, though, the city website does an admirable job of providing audio and video access to live and archived meetings. Meeting agendas appear to be posted in a timely fashion, while official minutes going back more than two years remain accessible.

Within the last several years, Arvada also followed in the footsteps of Fort Collins and created a user-friendly financial transparency page. (For the record, this was a 2009 municipal election issue that I asked four different candidates about before the city brought it to pass.)

Site users can search individual public spending transactions based on multiple dimensions, defining the date range as far back as January 1, 2010. Certified annual financial reports, budgets, and other interim financial documents are readily available. But excluding the stipends to council members, any information on Arvada government employee compensation — including salaries, benefits, and pension earnings — is absent. Further, searches for public access to vendor contracts and bid processes came up empty.

One might be able to ask for some or all of the missing information through Colorado’s Open Records Act (CORA). Yet apart from the police department, no mention is made of a public information officer to contact who can help facilitate inquiries, nor guidance offered regarding how citizens could make a CORA request. An online records request form, as included on other local government agency sites, was entirely absent.

Remedying the deficit of user-friendly guidance and access to the CORA process presents the city’s foremost opportunity to improve its online face.

After all, numerous other customer services are already available on the Arvada website. The city won a 2011 award for its handy online directory of businesses, churches, and community organizations. Residents like myself also can go online to pay water bills, schedule a building inspection, or apply for a business license. Individual department pages and primary contact information are accessible, though I was not able to locate any sort of listing of city employees.

If users are not sure how to navigate to a particular piece of site information, the easy-to-locate search bar at the top of the page does a reasonably good job of producing relevant, useful results.

Filling in a few online gaps should go a long way toward enhancing accountability and trust in Arvada.

Get involved with Sunshine Week 2014 by submitting a Sunshine Audit on your own local government’s website!

Ben DeGrow

Ben DeGrow is co-editor of Watchdog Wire - Colorado. Contact him at Colorado@WatchdogWire.com to learn how to get involved with citizen journalism in the Boulder State. Follow him on Twitter: @bendegrow

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