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Advocacy group ranks W.Va. government sites as least transparent in nation

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's government websites rank worst in the nation when it comes to transparency, according to a report from an advocacy group released Thursday.

The report by Sunshine Review, a Virginia-based nonprofit group that promotes openness among state and local governments, graded websites based on information available to the public on the sites. 

The organization has reviewed 31 states so far this year, and West Virginia earned a C overall -- a meshing of the state government website, which graded out well, and city and county websites, which did not.

The state website earned an A-minus. The organization praised the website for having a search function and providing contact information for agencies and elected officials. The report also mentioned that the website posts budgets, contracts and audits.

The group also looked at the websites for West Virginia's five largest cities and counties, and the 10 largest school districts.

Websites for Kanawha County, Kanawha County schools and Putnam County schools all got failing grades. The city of Charleston's website got a D-minus.

But local officials contend the Sunshine Review missed their websites' efforts at transparency.

Kristin McMurray, a managing editor with Sunshine Review, said the general rule for her website reviewers is, "If they can't find something in five minutes, mark it as missing." She said a citizen is only going to search for something for 30 seconds to a minute, so information is as good as not there if it can't be found.

The Sunshine Review report slammed the Kanawha County website for its lack of information about elected officials, the year's budget, lobbying, taxes and audits.

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said he thinks there's a lot the Sunshine Review group doesn't know about. For one, he said, there aren't registered lobbyists in the county.

He also mentioned that the county's website posts employees' salaries and gives notice about public meetings and streams them online.

"Maybe they didn't see that part," he said.

Carper also said audits are conducted in public each year and should be easily available.

But he acknowledged the Kanawha County website, like any website, could be improved.

"Could it be more user-friendly?" he asked. "I'll give you that one."

The report cited the Putnam County Schools website for not posting contact information for board members, a budget, and information about public records requests, taxes, contracts, audits, academic performance, and background checks.

Superintendent Chuck Hatfield said the Sunshine Review's grade is "quite frankly, insulting."

He and Assistant Superintendent Cindy Daniel said the school's website got kudos during a recent federal audit and that some of the information the Sunshine Review said is missing is actually available.

For example, he said, there are phone numbers for most school board members under the Board of Education tab on the website. The same tab also links to a 345-page policy dated 1995 that does include instructions for filing a public records request.

"It sounds like they didn't spend enough time to look for those things," Hatfield said.

The Sunshine Review's report said the Kanawha County schools website had similar flaws, including not having any information about test scores, audits, budget, taxes and administrative officials. Calls to the school district weren't returned Thursday, but a search on its website proves there is an employee directory that provides names and email addresses of administrators.

The Sunshine Review's report about the city of Charleston's website said it was "good" that the city had contact information for most officials and provided meeting minutes. The list of the "bad" in the report included not having information about public records, lobbying, meeting agendas and current-year budgets.

Deputy Mayor Rod Blackstone said the city is redeveloping its website and will take the group's recommendations into consideration. But he also said the Sunshine Review's report wasn't complete.

"They probably missed a few things," he said.

On Thursday, there were links to meeting agendas on the site for city council, the board of zoning appeals and the finance committee.

Blackstone said the group is correct -- the current year's budget isn't up yet, but that's because the fiscal year began July 1 and the finance director just handed out the budget to committee heads.

He also said the Sunshine Review is probably using a "litmus test" to look at all government websites, but some of it isn't applicable. While West Virginia has registered lobbyists, Charleston doesn't, so that criterion shouldn't be factored into the website's grade, he said.

Blackstone said he understands what the organization was trying to do -- see how much it could find out using a city's website. Charleston is moving its public records online, so while everything is available one way or another, not all records are on the web yet.

"I think we deserved a whole lot better grade than what they gave us," Blackstone said.

McMurray said, in a case like West Virginia's, the organization is always willing to take a second look at a website if its administrators think something was missed because it wants governments to work toward being transparent.

"We're here to try and help them and give them some general guidelines," she said.

Reach Alison Matas at alison.matas@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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