The websites of all 23 San Mateo County independent special districts lack information like meeting agendas and financial data and more than half are substantially inadequate, the civil grand jury concluded in a new report on transparency.
In its report “Partly Cloudy With a Chance of Information,” the jury concluded that the website deficiencies were not a matter of intentional hiding but rather misinformation about the cost, a lack of training about updates and privacy concerns. A professional developer could charge $1,000 to $9,000 to create a website which could then be updated in-house by trained employees.
Using a website transparency checklist created by the Special District Leadership Foundation, the civil grand jury evaluated the site of the 23 local districts based on both the availability of the items and the ease with which they were found. Items searched included member names and office terms, staff names and contact information, election procedures, the current budget, most recent financial audit, agendas and meetings for the last six months.
The checklist also asks that at least four of the following be included online: member ethics training certificates, photo, biography and email address of members, the last three years of audits, the reimbursement and compensation policy, financial reserves police, a downloadable public records act request form, audio or video recordings of board meetings, a district map and the most recent municipal service review and sphere of influence studies by the Local Agency Formation Commission.
The jury also spoke with board members, district employees and professional website developers to understand the cost and logistics of maintaining a useful site.
The grand jury’s investigation looked only at independent special districts, like the San Mateo County Harbor District, which have commissioners elected by voters. The county also has dependent districts governed by the Board of Supervisors. Those districts were not included.
Collectively, the 23 county districts included in the analyses served approximately 739,000 residents and received nearly $100 million in property tax revenue last fiscal year, according to the Controller’s Office. However, the jury pointed to a statewide poll that indicated only a quarter of residents know how the districts are managed, spend money and provide services. The websites are a tool for educating the public about district business and constituents should find the information “easily accessible,” the jury stated in its report.
The jury concluded that all 23 special independent districts lack some information and 15 “had substantial inadequacies in revealing information regarding finances, staff and board of directors’ or commissioners’ contacts and board of commission minutes.” The report did not parse out which districts were missing what pieces of information and Foreperson Kati Martin did not return a call for comment.
The civil grand jury reports carry no legal weight but recipients must respond in writing within 90 days. For this report, respondents include the Bayshore Sanitary District, Broadmoor Police Protection District, Coastside County Waster District, Coastside Fire District, Colma Fire Protection District, East Palo Alto Sanitary District, Granada Sanitary District, Highlands Recreation District, Ladera Recreation District, Los Trancos County Water District, Menlo Park Fire Protection District, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, Mid-Peninsula Water District, Montara Water and Sanitary District, Mosquito and Vector Control District, North Coast County Water District, Peninsula Health Care District, Resource Conservation District, San Mateo County Harbor District, Sequoia Healthcare District, West Bay Sanitary District, Westborough Water District and Woodside Fire Protection District.
The jury’s recommendations to each include conforming to the checklist criteria by May 15, 2015, consulting with professional website developers by Dec. 31, 2014, if in-house staff can’t create and manage a website, be trained in district governance and transparency and have district administrators by certified.
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