The word “transparency” gets bandied around a lot by local government officials—not just here in Bloomington.
It’s a vague concept.
Just because some local government news breaks that was unforeseen by a journalist or the public does not necessarily mean a failure on the government’s part.
Sometimes we could probably do a better job of paying attention to the information that the local government does make available.
But often, I think, the problem is not on our end.
What more could Bloomington’s government do, to make its workings more accessible and transparent to the public?
To answer that question, I draw on three years spent covering Bloomington area local government for The B Square.
Given that the Bloomington mayoral campaign season has already started for 2023, my answer takes the form of a possible mayoral transparency platform.
All other things being equal, if a mayoral candidate supports the platform below, I think readers should consider supporting that candidate.
PUBLIC RECORDS REQUESTS (APRA): CIVILIAN RECORDS/MEETING OFFICER
Responsibility. Responsibility for handling records requests under the APRA (Access to Public Records Act) will be assigned to a records/meetings officer who is outside the organization of the legal department. The records/meetings officer can consult with, but will not take direction from the legal department.
Prime Directive. A prime directive of the records/meetings officer will be: Disclose all records that are legally disclosable—not merely those records that the city is required under state law to disclose. That means the records/meetings officer will not use the so-called “deliberative materials exemption” in the APRA, or other discretionary exemptions, to withhold information from the public.
Performance: Timeliness. A performance metric of the records/meetings officer will be to provide at least some information to an APRA requestor within five days of receiving the request.
Performance: Dissemination of records. A performance metric of the records/meetings officer will be to disseminate to the public at large all of the records disclosed to an APRA requestor—at the same time the records are disclosed to the requestor. The records/meetings officer will be supported in this goal by the IT department, which will create a document repository for the city’s website, possibly promoted as B Clear Docs, as a companion to the existing B Clear Data. The document repository will include a simple way for the records/meeting officer and other city staff to upload documents, if they need to make them accessible to the public. The document repository will provide a way for the public to subscribe to its content updates.
Performance: Public record of APRA requests. A performance metric of the records/meetings officer will be to create and maintain a public database of APRA requests with their current status, date received, date closed, including links to the text of the request, and to the documents provided. The records/meetings officer will be supported in this goal by the IT department.
Performance: Implementation of web-based APRA request procedure. A performance metric of the records/meetings officer will be to retire the antiquated fillable .pdf form system for making APRA requests. In its place, the records/meetings officer will develop a web-form based interface for submission of an APRA request, which will automatically populate the public database of APRA requests.
Performance: Reduction of need for records requests. A performance metric of the records/meetings officer will be to reduce the need for future records requests. The records/meetings officer will assess every request made under the APRA for the potential to systematically push similar kinds of information to the public, by proactively posting it to B Clear Docs.
Performance: Discouragement of email attachments. A performance metric of the records/meeting officer will be to extinguish the use of email attachments by staff and elected officials as a method of conveying documents, except those that cannot legally be disclosed to the public. Through continuing departmental staff training, the records/meeting officer will promote the habit of using links to documents in B Clear Docs or elsewhere (OnBoard, for example) as the preferred way of conveying documents via email—instead of using email attachments.
Performance: Education about existing resources. A performance metric of the records/meeting officer will include promotion of the city’s data and document resources to interested residents, including working journalists. The records/meeting officer will offer systematic and ad hoc training to residents and journalists on extraction of useful information from city or other government resources.
Qualifications. Professional and educational background for the records/meetings officer should include training in database design, information architecture, library science, and customer service, as well as advanced digital technology skills.
PUBLIC MEETINGS (ODL): CIVILIAN RECORDS/MEETING OFFICER
Prime Directive. A prime directive of the records/meeting officer will be to ensure that public meetings are aggressively promoted to the public, not just that they meet the bare minimum requirements of Indiana’s Open Door Law (ODL).
Performance: Physical posting of notices, agendas. A performance metric of the records/meetings officer will be to ensure that all meetings of boards and commissions are at bare minimum properly noticed to the public at city hall—as required under Indiana’s Open Door Law. A performance metric of the records/meetings officer will be to ensure that all meeting agendas are posted at the entrance to the room where a meeting is to be held —as required under Indiana’s Open Door Law.
The records/meetings officer will work with relevant staff to ensure that the large video screen at the entrance to city hall cycles through announcements of the public meetings for that day with directions to the specific room inside city hall. The records/meetings officer will work with relevant staff to establish and maintain a secure physical bulletin board for paper postings of public meetings that is prominent and clearly labeled with a phrase like: “Upcoming Public Meetings.” The records/meetings officer will work with relevant staff to create for all city hall meeting room doorways some “Meeting Now” signage, with brackets that can hold interchangeable plates with the names of boards and commissions.
Performance: Accessibility of meeting documents. A performance metric of the records/meeting officer will be to ensure that all pages of meeting documents posted to the city’s website for any board or commission are accessible—that is, are not merely scanned images, but include digital text. The records/meeting officer will work with departmental staff who are responsible for preparing meeting documents and provide training on ways to test the accessibility of documents and to repair any defects.
Performance: Accuracy, redundancy of calendar feeds. A performance metric of the records/meeting officer will be to ensure that the existing digital calendar feeds for all board and commission calendar feeds are accurate and not redundant. The records/meeting officer will work with departmental staff to ensure that digital calendar feeds include links to remote access (Zoom), and to relevant supporting documents. The records/meeting officer will help make sure that canceled meetings are labeled as “canceled” for digital calendar feeds.
Performance: Links to docs referenced during meetings. A performance metric of the records/meeting officer will be to ensure that any documents displayed on-screen at a public meeting are provided to the public through a link displayed in the chat box for the hybrid (Zoom) interface. This work will entail working with departmental staff to ensure that relevant documents exist in B Clear Docs before the meeting starts.
REGULAR MAYORAL COMMUNICATIONS: MAYOR
Performance: News releases from the city, including the mayor’s office. The mayor will ensure that all news releases that mention some document also include a URL linking to that document.
Performance: Project status updates. The mayor will ensure that a publicly accessible database of all city projects is created and updated at least weekly, so that the latest status of current and past projects can be monitored by the public.
Performance: Regular news conference. The mayor or deputy mayor will make themselves available at least once a month to field questions on any topic from residents and established news outlets.
Performance: Reports to city council. The mayor and city staff will not lay claim to council meeting time for staff presentations. Instead, for every regular meeting, the mayor will provide a one-page memo to the council, early enough for inclusion in the city council’s meeting packet, that updates the council on the status of various initiatives and activities. Included in the mayor’s memo will be the names of new appointees to city boards and commissions. Included in the mayor’s memo will be a record of meetings, telephone conversations, or email exchanges with other elected or appointed officials (including city councilmembers), and a brief summary of topics discussed.