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Bell, California: Moving From Secrecy to Sunshine

by

Bell-seal

We can't keep our eyes off the City of Bell, California -- and for good reasons.

The city gained notoriety in 2010 when the Los Angeles Times began to expose high salaries for city officials who did next to nothing. It was a problem that had been brewing for years, as the LA Times charted in a timeline of the corruption.

Bell's government is different now.

Bell has most recently been in the news not just for reaching a culminating point in the scandal -- the trial of six former city council members on corruption charges -- but also for a high transparency grade as part of a government website review. Sunshine Review, a non-profit that examines state and local government transparency, gave the city an A- grade in the 2013 Sunny Awards. The grades are based on whether certain information like budgets, open meeting laws, and lobbying records are posted online, as outlined in this checklist.

This is one indicator of the many steps the city government has taken toward greater transparency. Bell's efforts are notable for several reasons.

1. Embracing Online Transparency

Bell provides a model of a city in transition: The move toward increased transparency from scandal and secrecy is evident in updates to the city website, which include a section devoted to transparency-related information. Here, residents can find details about budgets, council meetings, zoning, contracts, lobbying and more. Users can also make public records requests online and read the Employee Code of Ethics. These proactive steps follow some of Sunlight Foundation's recommendations for open data policies, such as posting public information online and in a central portal. The city could take more steps toward open data standards by making information like the city checkbook available in a format that is downloadable, searchable, sortable, and re-usable instead of its current PDF and HTML formats.

2. Using Public Input

The city hasn't just made moves for more online transparency. It has also worked to find new ways of gathering and implementing citizen input. Bell officials have started using this feedback in designing city budgets by sharing budget data in advance and letting the people voice their priorities for the next fiscal year. This use of citizen feedback resulted in a unanimously approved budget that received widespread public approval. That's no small feat for a city with financial struggles and citizens who could have easily been jaded by the abuse of public trust by former city officials. The city's website also provides numerous points for citizen feedback. By continuing to seek public input and actually put it to use, the city government has opened up a productive dialogue that could help lead to more ideas for improvements.

3. Valuing Diversity

Bell has made all of these changes while embracing its diverse community. Nearly 90% of the city's residents speak a language other than English, according to Census statistics. Although the city website is in English, there's a quick link at the top of every page to switch to viewing text in Spanish. Using this translate tool, based on Google Translate, users can also view the site in 63 other languages. At least some public meetings also appear to have Spanish translation available. Of course, the use of PDFs for posting meeting agendas, minutes, and other documents does provide an impediment to translation, and we have yet to see multi-language versions of public documents available on all the city’s properties.

Open data policies often feel disconnected from the realities of governance gone awry, but the foundation of these policies lies on the laws that give us access to information and involve the public in the political process. A more transparent website doesn’t make you a transparent government, but, as is the case with Bell, the move toward online disclosure is a clear demonstration of an internal shift, one that we hope continues to propel Bell forward.