To be transparent means to be candid and open. When used in that definition it is a good thing.
However, we are wondering whether a plan being discussed by the Clinton City Council — one officials say is meant to make our city government transparent — will do that.
The proposal is one that would add a part-time communications specialist to the city staff roster in fiscal year 2014, with that person responsible for communicating with and engaging the public, issuing press releases, communicating with the press and doing a small amount of work on the city’s website.
Sounds like a good idea upfront.
However, we have concerns. If a person is put in place for this, does it mean we, as the press, are limited to only speaking with that person to get an answer to our questions?
If a department head stands behind that, it could delay getting important information out to the public in a timely manner.
There are two reasons why: The person would be available four hours per week, so questions could be limited to being answered only during that time period and, then, would the new hire end up getting bounced back and forth between us and the source of the story to whom he or she would have to go to get the answers? It could be a verbal ping-pong match.
Also, while reporters go into an interview roughly knowing what they are going to ask, it is the verbal back and forth that often gets to the heart of the story. That could be lost with a middleman.
Interim City Administrator Jessica Kinser, who is the city’s finance director, said the idea behind this position is not to handle calls and inquiries from citizens but to work behind the scenes to create the message of the city.
Message of the city?
Government that is transparent to its citizens should not need to have a message developed, because what is happening — in council chambers and committee meetings that are open to the public — is the story.
However, there is something that we do agree on: The need to have someone work on the website. But we think all four hours per week should be devoted to getting the city website to a place that is beneficial to residents.
Right now, it is not. In a review of seven Iowa city’s websites, performed by pro-transparency non-profit Sunshine Review, Clinton performed the lowest, receiving a D-, with reviewers citing the lack of a search function as well as information on public records requests, taxpayer-funded lobbying and local taxes not being posted.
The non-profit also took issue with the fact that budgets, audits, building permits, contracts and contact information from all council members were not posted when the site was reviewed last February.
In the end, putting full and detailed information on the website would do a much better job of keeping residents informed than putting a person in the middle to control the message of the city.