Although we tend to think of cities as largely autonomous, the municipal context is really defined, and entangled, by the relationship between the local government and its state. The layers of complexity created by these relationships have real implications for local transparency policies, and you don’t have to look hard to find them.
A recent visit to Mobile, Alabama gave us a clear lesson in why understanding state and local relationships is important. Alabama’s constitution doesn’t have a “home rule” clause, meaning that the authority given to local governments is very limited. So limited, in fact, that many local matters are put up to a vote of the entire state. As a result, Alabama has the longest constitution in the United States, with many sections devoted to resolving one-time local issues. One recent example is a water assets issue in Prichard and Mobile that was put up to a statewide vote. Even though the issue dealt with a transfer of public utility assets and liabilities from the City of Prichard to the City of Mobile, whose combined populations are less than 300,000, more than 1.3 million people voted on the question. That’s a whole lot of people voting on a local matter that isn’t in their local area.
Public utilities might seem like something that could be handled at a municipal level, but some states — like Alabama — are set up in a way that requires handling them at the state-government level. This has implications for transparency reforms and general policies, as well. The state law of Alabama currently doesn’t recognize electronic records as official versions of public documents, so cities like Mobile need to collect both hard-copy paper and electronic data. Without official recognition of electronic documents, local archivists face challenges like duplicative document collection and serious questions about long-term record preservation (let alone digitization) that can’t be resolved without a nod from the state.
There are other examples of how state-level governments have set the transparency agenda for municipalities. In Illinois, the state legislature recently considered a bill that would have required local governments and school districts to post certain information on their websites. SB 3392, which died at the end of the 2012 legislative session, would have required local governments and school districts to post on their websites information such as budgets, notices of meetings, contracts with lobbying firms, a list of imposed taxes, steps for requesting public information, and more.
The bill also would have limited local governments’ home rule powers by explicitly stating that “No home rule unit may adopt posting requirements that are less restrictive than this Section.” Translated, this language would put the state in control of asserting a minimum threshold of transparency for local governments and school districts. We have to be aware of language like this, and its impacts, if we want to fully understand how state legislation can set standards for local government policies and what controls already exist.
In Nebraska, a pending bill with similar aims to the Illinois legislation would require cities and villages to post ordinances and notices and agendas of meetings on their websites. Legislative Bill 521, introduced on Jan. 23, would also let local governing bodies meet by teleconference or videoconference in certain cases. The bill sets detailed standards for how these kinds of meetings could be held. It even goes down to the granularity of specifying that public bodies should not use electronic communications as a way to circumvent the Open Meetings Act. This kind of broad language is good to be aware of for advocates and government officials alike, and its potential to be wielded as a big stick should be contemplated in the balance of local government’s interests as well.
It can be difficult to understand all the ways states and local governments interact, let alone when it comes to transparency laws, so we’ve started collecting some useful research resources here. These resources stretch back to the beginning of our posts about municipalities, including some links to information about how local government is structured and how it interacts with other levels of government.