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Sunshine Audit: Howard County, Maryland

ACCESSIBILITY:

From a top-level perspective the Howard County government website is relatively user friendly and easy to navigate.  Six information tabs prominently placed across the top of the page, labeled “Services,” “News,” “Meetings & Events,” “Departments,” “I Want To,” and “Contact Us.”  The “I Want To” tab is very helpful for finding online services such as paying bills, applying for licenses and permits, and accessing some key documents.

There are specific standout links to information about the County Executive and the County Council. The County Executive page is a ponderous 1,500 hagiographical bio page for Ken Ulman.  Only until you scroll to the bottom of the page are there icon-style links that take you to individual agency pages or to online services or published reports.  The County Council’s page contains more information with links to council meetings, agendas, minutes, some records, and other information.

TRANSPARENCY:

The County Executive’s page does not list an office address or contact phone number. Contact information for individual council members is listed on their individual pages. The council site contains a “watch us” link that allows you to watch live council meetings and view archived video of previous meetings, links to agendas of those meetings are also available. Some budget documents are listed as well as current legislation on the “Legislation” tab.

The executive branch departments contain varying degrees of public information.  For example, the Department of Housing and Community Development contains many detailed financial and planning reports, whereas the Health Department contains mostly public health promotional information.  The county finance office site has reports and publications page that links to comprehensive annual financial reports and other audit reports.

Information for submitting a Public Information Act request is linked on the “I Want To” tab.

CONTENT:

As mentioned above, the county council site provides links to video of county council meetings, archived video of past meetings, including PDF versions of agendas and minutes.  The council site also has a sub site for the county’s planning and zoning process, which includes video and PDF minutes of prior meetings, as well as pertinent legislation and text amendments.

The County Council page has a “Calendar” tab that provides a list of upcoming and previous meeting.

The County Auditor, an officer of the legislative branch also has a page listing their duties, staff/organizational chart and published reports.

The County Council site also provides information on the seven legislatively appointed boards.  The individual boards contain varying degrees of information.  For example, the Alcohol Beverage Hearing Board is a five-member panel, yet its page lists only the chairman of the board and a table of its upcoming meeting agenda.  The Board of Appeals page lists all if its members and much more comprehensive information about activities, schedules, and decisions.

Overall, the Howard County government website provides access to a plethora of information for citizens.  Suggestions for improvement include a public database of all county spending above a certain amount similar to the state’s Funding Accountability and Transparency website.  A database like that would make it easier for county residents to see how and where their tax dollars are being spent.  Another improvement would be a database or comprehensive listing of county contracts including vendor information and contract totals.

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

Mark Newgent

Mark Newgent is a contributing editor to Red Maryland, the premiere blog of conservative politics in the Free State, voted one of the best state political blogs by the Washington Post two years in a row. His writing has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, Washington Examiner, National Review Online, and more. Twitter: @MarkNewgent

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Categories: Audits, Budget and Finance, Citizen Journalism, Government Transparency, Must Read, Open Government, Transportation
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