A Great Idea: Grade the Public Notes

Charles Davis
February 1, 2008 — 1,123 views  
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My buddy Joel Campbell out in Utah is involved in a great new project: grading the notice given under the state's open meetings law by local governments. This is a wonderful idea, and one that could easily be reproduced out there (hint, hint)...

A snippet:

When controversy hits in Utah Valley, municipal leaders often hear a singular message from affected residents -- we were not given important information when we needed it.

Razing ancient cedars or building a Wal-Mart feet from homes in Cedar Hills, expanding a sewer lagoon or approving huge housing developments in Santaquin, proposing itinerate housing in Payson, looking to quadruple impact fees or OK a gravel pit in Saratoga Springs, building a freeway in Lehi or a charter school on a residential street in Alpine, local residents have repeatedly expressed frustration with city employees and elected leaders who are supposed to protect their interests.

Because residents in cities across Utah Valley have decried for years the way cities communicate information that affects their lives, the Daily Herald recently collected -- or in some cases, attempted to collect -- meeting agendas and asked two experts to judge them, assigning each a letter grade based on how well cities had communicated to the public the business of the community.

To residents, the consequences of local decisions are real, and sometimes devastating. Eagle Mountain officials admitted recently that had they acted earlier, it would not have been necessary to condemn the front yards of four residents to build a 90-foot-tall power line. But that was little comfort to residents who wept in protest, or to Cedar Hills homeowners who will find themselves living feet from a Wal-Mart when construction begins in the spring, all of whom told city leaders they were not given information about the projects early enough.

Public information on the activities of planning commissions and city councils varies widely across Utah Valley. Some cities provide agendas with extremely minimal information, stating only that "recreation" or undefined jargon terms such as "CDBG" will be discussed, as a recent agenda in Goshen stated, or simply "airport loan" or "center for the arts" listed on a recent Provo agenda. Such opaqueness makes it difficult for residents to know not only how elected officials are spending taxpayer money, but also how city actions may affect residents.

Other cities are much more transparent. Eagle Mountain and Orem both regularly provide agendas reaching 10 pages or more, containing detailed explanations making it easier for residents to know at a glance where money is being spent and on-the-ground consequences of city actions. Most, if not all, cities provide extremely detailed packets of information -- sometimes numbering 100 pages or more -- regarding the agendas to their city leaders, but have sometimes charged the public and media fees to get the same information. Other cities post these packets on their Web sites for free public access.

Charles Davis

Website

Charles N. Davis is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, headquartered at the School. Davis' scholarly research focuses on access to governmental information and new media law, including jurisdictional issues, intellectual property and online libel. He has earned a Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his work in furthering freedom of information and the University of Missouri-Columbia Provost's Award for Outstanding Junior Faculty Teaching, as well as the Faculty-Alumni Award.