Every Community Should Have An Open Government Advisory Board


The Amherst, NY Town Board unanimously passed a resolution committing the town to an open government policy. To implement this policy an Open Government Advisory Board consisting of citizens and a designated department head will work to make more information available to the public on-line. While communities across the country are undertaking similar efforts, the Village of Williamsville was the first municipality in Western New York to recently adopt such a policy.

Hopefully other communities will join Williamsville and Amherst in forming a citizens Open Government Advisory Board. In an ironic moment, before approving the Open Government policy, the Amherst Town Board held a public hearing to obtain public input regarding the town’s proposed 2015 budget. Only one resident spoke at the hearing (Jane Fox) but she made an astounding point. The Board was holding a hearing seeking public opinion regarding a budget which was not available at the library or on-line. Ms. Fox as an interested citizen looked for the budget information and could not find it. How incredible is that!

The Board agreed to adjourn the public hearing to a later date and hopefully the information will be made available to the public ahead of time.

A copy of the resolution passed by the Amherst Town Board is below.

Open Government Advisory Board and Plan

WHEREAS, the Town Board (Resolution 2014-229) directed the Government Study
Committee to review and recommend to the Town Board an Open Government Plan; and

WHEREAS, the Town of Amherst is committed to creating a high level of openness and transparency in government; and

WHEREAS, the three principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration form the cornerstone of an open government; and

WHEREAS, more government information should be published and made available via the Internet which will provide greater public access to information and a mechanism for public feedback and participation; and

WHEREAS, the demands of an across-the-board open government framework require the assistance of a Open Government Advisory Board, to guide these initiatives; and

WHEREAS, goals and timetables should be established for development and implementation of an overall Open Government Plan to enhance and develop transparency, public participation, and collaboration in all town activities;

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT:

1) The Supervisor shall designate a department head to serve as a liaison to the Open Government Advisory Board. The liaison will lead the Open Government initiatives outlined in this Resolution, including working with town departments and agencies to establish standards for publication of information and the most effective means for making such information available. The liaison will report to the Supervisor regarding Open Government initiatives.

3) The Town Board shall appoint an Open Government Advisory Board. The Board shall consist of seven members, including the liaison, and shall be chaired by an individual designated by the Supervisor. The Advisory Board shall meet regularly at such times as the Board decides.

4) The Advisory Board, shall develop and publish an Open Government Plan. The plan will detail, including specific actions and timelines, the steps that the town of Amherst will take to incorporate the principles of open government into its daily activities.

The Plan shall be formulated with the input of senior policy, legal, and technology leadership in the Town; open government experts; and the general public.

Components of the Open Government Plan shall include:

(a) Transparency: Steps the Town will take to conduct its work more openly and publish its information online, including ready public access to ordinances and regulations, policies, legislative records, budget information, crime statistics, public health statistics, and other information.

(b) Public Participation: Description of how the Town will enhance and expand opportunities for the public to participate throughout each department’s decision-making process, including instructions for online access to published information and opportunities for comment; methods for identifying stakeholders and other affected parties and encouraging their participation; links to appropriate websites where the public can engage in the Town’s existing participatory processes; and proposed changes to internal management and administrative policies to increase public participation.

(c) Collaboration: Steps the Town will take to enhance and expand cooperation among its departments and agencies, other governmental agencies, private and nonprofit entities, and the public, to fulfill Town goals and obligations; including proposals to use technology platforms and links to appropriate websites to improve, and inform the public about, existing collaboration efforts, and use of innovative methods to obtain ideas from and to increase collaboration with those in the private sector, nonprofit and academic communities.

5) A portal/place shall be established on the Town’s website that will serve as the source for Town-wide and departmental activities with respect to this open government initiative.

6) Each Town department and agency shall develop a schedule for making information available to the public and updating it on a regular basis. To the extent practicable and subject to valid restrictions, agencies shall publish information on line (in addition to other planned or mandated publication methods), and in an open format. The open format will provide data in a form that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, searched and reused by commonly used web search applications and software.

7) The Open Government Portal shall include a mechanism for the public to give feedback on and assess the quality of published information, provide input about what information should be a priority for publication, and provide input on the Town’s Open Government Plan.

8) Progress toward meeting the Open Government goals set forth in this Resolution shall be evaluated six months from the adoption date of this Resolution, again one year from the adoption date, and annually thereafter. The evaluation shall be released on the Open Government Portal, and shall include criteria to be developed by the Advisory Board.

Making Financial Information Understandable to the Public

Very few citizens have a good understanding of their local government’s budget. While many municipalities put their budgets on-line, they often consist of hundreds of hard to understand pages of numbers.

Erie County New York’s operating budget is 405 pages long. The summary of the budget released by the County Executive, which is . . . → Read More: Making Financial Information Understandable to the Public

National Research Regarding Citizen Participation With Local Government

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Making Freedom Of Information Requests Transparent

According to Robert Freeman the head of the New York State Committee on Open Government, one of the most common reason government officials make it difficult to obtain information is that they do not want to be embarrassed.

I have filed several Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests and have experienced first . . . → Read More: Making Freedom Of Information Requests Transparent

Does The Public Need To Be Protected Regarding Taxicabs?

The Buffalo Common Council has a Taxicab Committee and the City Code has 12 pages devoted to the regulation of taxicabs. The City Council actually decides and must approve taxicab rates. In addition to approving rates, the Council controls how many taxicab licenses can be issued by limiting the number of taxicabs to . . . → Read More: Does The Public Need To Be Protected Regarding Taxicabs?