Rock Island County office building

The Rock Island County office building located at 1504 3rd Ave., Rock Island. The county went from an F last year to an A this year in our grades for government transparency.

Today, we throw a spotlight on our Quad-City governments in recognition of Sunshine Week, March 12-18.

This is the second year we have graded seven municipal governments. We used the same rubric as 2016, grading with 100 points assigned to the transparency of public records processes, meetings, document availability and a posted budget. This year, we added one more governmental entity, the Illinois Quad-City Civic Center Board.

The greatest success story, from 2016 to 2017, was the grade for Rock Island County. Through the focus of a new county administrator and a county board willing to work through some difficult decisions, the transformation was very apparent using our grading system. The county had an F in transparency in 2016 and an A this year.

For this project, reporters filed three Freedom of Information Act requests in February, seeking the minutes from the past five executive sessions, a copy of the city budget if it is not available on the website and expense reports for a specified week. Reporters also requested a count of the number of council meetings during the past five years and the number of executive sessions called during those meetings.

As we did last year, we chose to measure one data point of transparency based on the percentage of meetings that go into executive session. This, we admit, is a debatable point, because there are legitimate reasons to go into executive session — legal battles, real estate deals and confidential employee matters. However, an entity that goes into executive session more than half of the time should examine its practices to make sure its choices, although legal, also honor the spirit of the law.

The governments that had failing grades this year mostly struggled on two points: the affordability of fees for records and the accessibility of the budget.

As journalists, we have found that governments often use fees and excessive labor charges to deter us from open records requests they do not want to fill. This, in most cases, is legal, but robs the public of its right to know. For this project, we considered it appropriate to offer the first 50 pages for free. After all, these are the public’s records, and governments are merely the stewards of those records. After 50 free pages, most Quad-City governments charged 15 cents per page, which we consider to be affordable.

As for the other point of struggle in this year’s report card, it is not enough to post the annual budget to a website. Hundreds of pages of spreadsheets are transparent by appearance only. The average taxpayer needs help sorting through all those numbers. As we graded municipal budgets, we looked for a table of contents, an executive summary and explanatory graphs and charts to help the public understand how its tax dollars are being spent. The good news is that several Quad-City governments publish reader-friendly budgets.

Read more about the Sunshine Week transparency report card by clicking through the slides. Or pick up Sunday's paper.

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