An analysis of the public information made available by Ocean County governmental agencies conducted by this website has concluded that many of the county’s boards & commissions fail to provide copies of basic meeting minutes and agendas, among other public documents, on their official websites.
In 2016, this is no longer acceptable, and for what is paid by citizens in property taxes, public information should be readily available online.
AN OCP EDITORIAL REPORT
After the reception our first transparency analysis received, several readers have asked that we apply the same criteria used in the municipal transparency study to the various board & commissions that oversee the county government. In doing so, it became readily apparent that public information isn’t being made available on the internet by many county agencies.
Ultimately, most of the county’s important business takes place at the Board of Chosen Freeholders, but the smaller boards and commissions can either make reccomendations to the freeholders, or be given authority over an area of their own, such as the Ocean County Planning Board’s limited jurisdiction on certain land use matters.
In our municipal analysis, OCP found that the municipalities of Ocean County ran the gamut, from those that had all documents readily available and up-to-date, to those that barely had a functional town website.
This diversity in transparency among municipal and county governments is the result of lack of mandate from the state or federal governments in the area of public information on the websites of local governments. Taxpayers are left at the whims of local officials to decide how much (or how little) information is posted on government websites.
Our study of the county’s bureaucracy found that some but not all of the county’s boards posted up-to-date documents, according to information obtained from the county website.
We first turn to the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders. They lost points in the area of meeting agendas, because the freeholder board does not currently post the meeting agendas of their “pre-board” meetings online. Paper copies of the agenda on the table outside of the meeting room, but never online. Other than that, for regular meetings, the minutes and agendas are posted online.
As to the other departments of the county government mentioned in this analysis, there really isn’t much more to say. Some, like the Ocean County Utilities Authority, did better than expected, while others just did the bare minimum meeting agendas and minutes.
One county board that really should have more of its documents (such as meeting minutes and agendas) made publicly accessible online is the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Advisory Committee. The Natural Lands Trust programs sees the county make millions of dollars in open space acquisitions around Ocean County each year. Later this week, we will be publishing a Little Egg Harbor official’s criticism of the open space program from a recent meeting.
Where In The World Are Ocean County’s Personnel Resolutions?
On a related note, it should also be mentioned that on the official meeting agendas released before regularly scheduled freeholder meetings, on the county’s public website, there is not a copy of the county personnel resolution that the freeholders will be voting on at the meeting.
Once approved at each freeholder board meeting, the county personnel resolution – which authorizes hirings and related personnel decisions – has always been included with the meeting minutes posted on the county website, but curiously it is nowhere to be found on the meeting agendas. Listed on these personnel resolutions are sometimes the spouses, cousins and extended family members of politicians getting patronage jobs in county agencies, so there is always the chance that they want these hirings kept quiet and not discovered until after the fact.
Given instances like the botched hiring of Freeholder Jack Kelly’s relative Michael Fromosky, this is suspicious.
Inconvenient Meeting Times: Another Blow To Accountability
While meeting times were not part of the criteria of this analysis, it should be said that for many, the timing of the freeholder board’s meetings is inconvenient, as many working class families impacted by decisions of the freeholders cannot attend their meetings, held on Wednesdays at 4:00 PM. It’s why many of those seen in the audience at freeholder meetings are likely wearing a county employee ID badge.
The resistance of the freeholders to pay to have county meetings filmed has only compounded this problem, and with it, the lack of participation by the public in county governance.
By all accounts, the freeholders aren’t even the worst when it comes to inconvenient meeting times, even though their 2:00 PM meetings about the new multi-million dollar courthouse project came close. The Ocean County Board of Health takes the cake for the most inconvenient meeting time that we currently know of – they hold their public meetings at 9:30 AM in the morning. Who has time to show up to that?
No Excuses For Lack Of Transparency
In conclusion, we live in an era in which technology has taken over many aspects of our lives. Unless you are reading a printed copy of this article, you are probably reading this article on an electronic device. In many cases what used to be printed paper has been replaced by smartphones and computers. Government, especially at the county level, cannot exempt themselves from this trend. To do so is to ignore reality.
In a democratic (small d) society such as ours, information must be readily available to citizens and the press so that we can ensure government business is done in the open, and that citizens have the accountability tools they need in order to be best informed before casting their ballots.
The state has yet to regulate what municipalities or counties must publish on their websites, beyond certain things like budgets. The lack of a uniform state requirement for county and municipality websites with up-to-date public information has kept the current patchwork in place that still exists to this day. Until state lawmakers institute such a requirement or the anti-transparency culture of county and local governments changes, things will stay the same.
The county and municipal governments rated low in these two transparency studies might argue that a citizen interested in seeing these records that aren’t posted on their websites could file public records requests to get it, and that nobody is withholding access to the records. That certainly may be true given the lack of state guidelines, but the question we should be asking is: would the average citizen – who is unfamiliar with OPRA public records requests – really want to go through all of that trouble? Probably not, but it’s information that should be readily available to the taxpayers.
Publishing these documents online could also be seen as a way of reducing the workload from public records requests, as more documents would directly be accessible online, free of charge, with the side benefit of more information concerning the operations of taxpayer-funded entitities available to the public.
But until state legislators introduce legislation instituting transparency requirements to that effect, we remain at the mercy of county bureaucrats to decide to make public documents more accessible.