Sunshine Review gives Iowa government a B in transparency

BY BETH BRATSOS | MARCH 06, 2012 6:30 AM

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A 2011 bill may have improved Iowa's transparency rating, but officials say more can be done.

Analysts from the Sunshine Review organization gave Iowa a B "sunshine rating" for 2012, which is an increase from a C- in 2011. The Sunshine Review analyzes ease of access to critical information on city, county and state websites through a "10-point Transparency Checklist".

Kristin McMurray, the managing editor of the Sunshine Review, said the checklist includes accessibility to information on lobbying, public records, administrative officials, audits, contracts, permits and zoning, and taxes.

Officials from the Public Interest Institute released an Iowa Transparency Newsletter further explaining the rating Iowa received.

Jennifer Crull, an IT specialist at Iowa Wesleyan College's Public Interest Institute, said the improved grade follows the passage of House File 45 last year, which required the Iowa Department of Management to develop a searchable database for the state budget by 2013.

"I feel [the passing of House File 45] was so important because it allows for another pair of eyes to see things. As tax payers, we have a right to see where money is being spent," she said. "I think it will provide another check-and-balance system, to know that our state is spending our tax dollars as wisely as it can."

Crull said a new state website design introduced last year also improved the site's usability.

Currently, the Iowa Legislature website provides a list of registered lobbyists with the state, but it does not comply with the full requirements of Sunshine Review.

"We ask for two things," McMurray said. "If [the state has] any memberships to any associations, and if those associations lobby on their behalf, that they disclose that and the membership fees. [Also] the number of associations and the amount spent on them."

State officials said the search function is also somewhat difficult to navigate.

McMurray said Iowa will receive an A when the government complies with lobbyist requirements and after the website's usability is improved, which is judged by the presence and accessibility of an internal search.

"All of our components [for determining transparency] have the same weight," she said. "We don't count partials. Sometimes entities will only partially fulfill our requests."

Crull said while Iowa has made progress in terms of transparency in recent years, she thinks local governments have more work to do.

"I think our state is headed in the right direction. After we see what the Department of Management gives us with House File 45, it will prompt us on what we need to work on after that," she said. "We are progressing on the state level at the right speed. My concerns fall on local government."

Johnson County and Iowa City seem to be more transparent than other Iowa counties and cities.

According to the 2012 Sunshine Review, Johnson County's grade rose from a B- to an A- after the website's lobbyist information was updated. It found public records were the only component currently missing information.

Counties in Iowa placed 17th in the national ranking for overall government transparency. Arizona counties and California counties placed first and second respectively.

Iowa City City Manager Tom Markus said city officials will pursue improving the city's government transparency. Iowa City received a "B," tying Cedar Rapids and Sioux City as the highest grade in Iowa. Two components with missing information, according to Sunshine Review, are lobbying and public records.

"This is the first year we have entered into engagement with a lobbying firm, so we will put information on that on our website going forward," Markus said. "We have information on how to access public records, but we can enhance that. Maybe it needs to be more visible."

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