CHAMPAIGN — The city is failing when it comes to providing information on its website, a conservative research institute says.
The Illinois Policy Institute this week released its annual "online transparency audit," which evaluates towns and cities' websites and grades them based on how well they provide public information like officials' contact information, budgets, audits and expense reports.
Champaign's grade: F.
"Basically the idea behind it is that Illinois in general has a corruption problem, and transparency is one of the most important things we can do," said Brian Costin, director of government reform for the Illinois Policy Institute.
Champaign's website scored 55.4 out of 100 possible points in the institute's online audit. It scored high when it came to providing meeting information, public officials' contact information and budget documents. It scored very low in posting expense reports, employee compensation and lobbying associations.
Deputy City Manager for Development Craig Rost said on Friday that he had not gotten a chance to review the report yet, but he would share it with other city officials.
"The city of Champaign strives to be open and transparent, and we would be concerned if our web access or other media information did not reflect that goal," Rost said. "I will look at this report and discuss it with other administration leaders and city council so we can respond to its findings."
Mayor Don Gerard said he's open to ideas about how to make the city's website more transparent. He said a lot of the information is there, but maybe some of it is difficult to find.
Gerard would like to hear suggestions from the institute about exactly how and where the website can be improved.
"We want to be as transparent as possible," Gerard said.
The city does an "OK job" in the areas where it scored well, Costin said. But Champaign does not provide detailed, searchable information about how it spends money, who gets paid and "didn't really have a complete picture" of how it levies taxes.
"It's the back end of the audit which they don't do very well in," Costin said. "Including expenditures is one of the best corruption- or fraud-prevention things that a community can do."
Costin commended the city for posting all board meeting packets with detailed reports. That's something that not all cities do.
"That's really important for people who want to go to the board meetings, know what they're going to talk about ahead of time and have a little bit of education so they can contribute," he said.
Transparency is of particular importance in Champaign because of the University of Illinois' recent history of scandal, Costin said. He referenced the Category I admissions scandal, for which connected applicants were given preferential treatment. The practice came to light in 2009.
"We can learn from that and apply it to our own communities," Costin said. "We shouldn't ignore it when it's in our own backyard."
The city council this month reviewed its goals for the next two years. One of the six goals it lists is a commitment to "honest, transparent government."
Among the tasks city officials plan to undertake to achieve that goal between now and the end of 2015 are providing timely and accurate information about city services; openly sharing information about city actions, events and decisions; and improving public access to city information.
The city also has a five-year public communications plan that runs through 2015. That plan includes a goal to improve the city website by updating and redesigning its layout, creating email subscriptions to disseminate city news, training staff to maintain the website, and improving its calendars and search function. Most of those tasks have already been accomplished.
Champaign was one of 12 governments which failed the Illinois Policy Institute audit out of the 25 it surveyed. Illinois' four biggest cities — Chicago, Aurora, Rockford and Joliet — all failed. Evanston, Skokie and Orland Park all registered perfect, 100-out-of-100 scores.
In central Illinois, Decatur and Springfield also failed with scores of 42.7 and 54.9 respectively. Bloomington passed with 77.2 points, and Peoria registered 92.2 out of 100 points.
The organization is using the data as ammunition for its attempts to change state law. It wants to see a revival of House Bill 3312, which would require local governments to post certain kinds of information on their websites.
Costin said it's a way to "really start changing the culture" of corruption in Illinois.
"We really think that that's critical," he said. "We think all taxpayers across the state of Illinois deserve access to this information."
Transparency checklist for Champaign website
The Illinois Policy Institute grades cities' websites with a 10-point checklist. Champaign lost points in some cases where information was missing or not searchable. In others, it got dinged for not posting five years' worth of information.
Public official contact info: 9.125 out of 10.
Meeting information: 10 out of 10.
Freedom of Information Act help: 7.5 out of 10.
Budgets: 9.4 out of 10.
Financial audits: 8 out of 10.
Expenditure reports: 0.8 out of 10.
Employee compensation reports: 2 out of 10.
Bids and vendor contracts: 4.6 out of 10.
Lobbying contracts: 0 out of 10.
Information about taxes and fees: 4 out of 10.
SOURCE: Illinois Policy Institute