Proactively Building Public Trust in Local Government
by Jim Ridenour
City officials throughout California are focusing on ways to increase transparency in local government. The scandal surrounding the City of Bell has impacted all of us and undermined the public’s trust in our ability to govern responsibly and act as stewards of public resources.
As a result, we must make every effort to engage our communities in our municipal decision-making processes and take proactive steps to share information about city operations. The fact is that the vast majority of cities are well run and governed in an ethical way, but we can always do a better job of telling our story and involving our residents in the decisions we make that affect their lives and their cities.
I have heard that some local officials have reservations about voluntarily making information related to budgets and city finance readily available because they are concerned that such information will be misunderstood, misused or mischaracterized. That has not been the case in my city, Modesto.
It undeniably does more good than harm to make city information available online. In Modesto, our experience reflects this. We have posted our city budget and financial statements online for nearly eight years (at www.modestogov.com). I firmly believe that doing so has made it possible for the public to engage in our city’s decision-making processes in a more constructive way. Having ready access to this kind of information helps our residents understand how their local government functions and, in turn, increases their participation.
Voluntarily sharing information about city operations provides other significant benefits in addition to fostering a more informed community. It helps the media do a better job of covering local government issues. If your city’s financial and other vital data are easy to find, it saves time and resources both for the press and the city and reduces the number of public records requests.
And there’s another angle to consider: the perception that if your city’s fiscal information is not online and easy to find, something is being hidden. Such perceptions are damaging and difficult to change once they are established.
Transparency in local government is an essential element of our democracy. Local officials need to be completely up front about city finances and operations. After all, we are here to serve the public. The question we must ask ourselves is, “How can we improve what we are already doing to make our city’s information easily available and accessible?”
Take Advantage of These Resources
The League and its affiliates offer information, training and materials to assist you in your transparency efforts.
The Institute for Local Government (ILG), which is the nonprofit research arm of the League and the California State Association of Counties, provides numerous free and low-cost resources to help city and county officials explain local decision-making processes to the public and the press. For example, ILG’s Local Government 101 program (www.ca-ilg.org/localgovt101) includes materials that cover the basics of finance, revenues, land use, the structure of local government in California and much more. ILG not only welcomes but also encourages cities to include links to these materials on municipal websites to assist in public and media education.
Furthermore, ILG’s Public Engagement and Collaborative Governance program (www.ca-ilg.org/engagement) offers local officials best practices and strategies to broaden participation in local agency decision-making from all segments of the community. The site also shares examples of successful efforts from communities throughout the state. This information is particularly useful in helping you decide which methods of involving the public are likely to work best in your community or in a particular context.
In addition, Western City provides a bimonthly column titled “Everyday Ethics for Local Officials.” This month, the ethics column addresses the topic of how cities can take steps to prevent misconduct and corruption and promote transparency. I encourage you to read it and share it with your staff and community members as a starting point for discussion.
Take Action Now
Building transparency and restoring the public’s trust in local government require an ongoing effort. As local officials, we must make this a priority if we are to rebuild our communities’ confidence in the ability of cities to serve their residents.
For example, ILG provides the ethics training that AB 1234 requires for all local elected officials. It’s important for all of us to encourage our colleagues to make sure our AB 1234 certificates are up to date and that we get the required training in the most effective way possible so we understand the complex laws that apply to our public service.
Similarly, the League’s New Mayors and Council Members Academy, held every January, covers the basics for newly elected officials on the legal constraints and requirements of public office (for more information, see page 26 or visit www.cacities.org/events). Make sure that your newly elected colleagues receive the benefit of this important training.
I urge you to discuss the need for open, responsive government at your city council meetings. Talk about the documents and information that are available to the public and where these resources can be found. Explore what else can be done to shed light on public decision-making processes and municipal finance through your city’s website and other communication vehicles. Ask the members of your community what else they would like to see their local government do to promote openness and public involvement. Because as much as we may have done already, we can always do more.