Democracy succeeds when citizens trust their government. Citizens can only trust their government when it operates in a transparent manner – when citizens can see how funds are spent and decisions are made.
To achieve transparency, government has to purposefully work to make relevant information available to citizens in a timely manner, in ways that are convenient for them, and in formats that are useful and informative. That means something more than just publishing agendas and summaries or transcripts of meetings. Local governments that are leaders in this area actively invite an informed, engaged electorate to participate continuously; not just at election time.
The Los Alamos County government has many strengths in this area. The County website has a fantastic section that clearly communicates the priorities and decisions that are embedded in the County budget. It’s so good that our County routinely receives national awards for it. The LA County Line and other emails available to the public contain information about County events and issues. The Open Forum is a blog that allows citizens to comment on upcoming decisions. Those are all great starts.
We’re poised to do better, and I would like to see us follow through on the opportunities in front of us. Packed lifestyles keep many citizens from attending public meetings or participating on committees. The County government should provide new communication channels that offer more time-efficient ways for citizens to educate themselves and participate in government. There are some steps we can take to move in that direction, quickly and at low cost.
Because the vast majority of citizens can’t attend public meetings or watch them on cable, it’s hard for most people to keep track of how elected officials are voting. Today, if you want to find out how an individual councilor voted on a specific issue and you didn’t attend or watch the public meeting, you’d need to know the date the vote was taken, find the meeting minutes, and search for the relevant vote record. That takes too much time and effort.
I’m proposing a searchable County Issues Database on the County website dedicated to votes on key issues, with space for background documents the Council or County boards considered and space for councilors to provide comments that explain their votes. This simple fix creates a user-friendly way to track the performance of the County Council and appointed board members, and would promote engagement with the County government in a more focused, informed, and effective way.
In addition to providing citizens with an easy way to understand the decisions made by elected and appointed officials after the fact, the County Issues Database would also provide information about pending issues with dedicated pages and links to all relevant information; allowing you to reach out to the Council to share your analysis and views, using the same core information available to the County Administration.
To provide some current examples, the County is engaging on the our long-term water needs and the preservation of the County’s San Juan Chama water rights; the County is involved with the preservation of recreational skiing at Pajarito Mountain; and the County is working in support of the establishment of a multi-state, multi-site Manhattan Project National Park. To stay informed and effectively contribute to these discussions, a resident would have to attend or watch the relevant meetings, follow the press closely, and search out relevant documents; all without missing anything. The information already exists; and it can be packaged so that it’s consolidated, easy to locate, and easy to analyze.
Better information sharing through the County Issues Database, expanded use of the existing County Open Forum and low-cost outreach tools like issue-specific email surveys can all serve to enhance citizen engagement, and alignment between the community and the County government.
Television and radio coverage of Council meetings is obviously important. Other meetings should also be televised live or be available through web streaming. Planning and Zoning meetings are currently broadcast, but Board of Public Utilities meetings aren’t and they should be. Web technology exists to cheaply rectify that shortcoming, opening up these often important discussions for broader community involvement and review.
None of these ideas are revolutionary and they don’t cost much to implement. With clear direction from the Council to the County Administrator, we can take rapid, significant steps to improve the openness and accountability of County government.
As a long-time employee and officer at The Washington Post, I came to appreciate the value of transparency in government. As a Vice President, leading a 500 person department at the newspaper, I also came to appreciate what transparency and strong communication channels can contribute to the effectiveness and growth of a business operation. If elected to County Council, I’ll bring that perspective and experience to my position, and I’ll show that transparent government isn’t just a slogan; it’s a common sense practice that can deliver real benefits to our community.
Learn more about me and my ideas at http://oleary4LAC.com.