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Tag Archive: local open government

Greetings from #OpenData Land

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Publishing open data has many practical and normative implications which can be noted and explored in the text of the open data policy. We've rounded up some of the interesting reasons policymakers in cities across the country have pursued these policies. Check them out in our #opendata policy postcards.

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New Rule Takes On Pay-to-Play in Muni Bonds

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Sunlight has long been an advocate for not only improved transparency of government institutions but also for thoughtful transparency measures that have open data standards in mind. Today we submitted a letter to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) supporting a proposed rule change that would give voters more information about who is trying to influence bond ballot issues. The Board is working toward improved disclosure of ballot campaign contributions by those with certain connections to municipal bonds. We applaud this step toward greater transparency on an issue that deeply impacts local governments and their constituents. Voters have a clear interest in understanding the context of the bonds approved for their communities. Investigative journalists have already used these kinds of disclosures to write stories like this one from Voice of San Diego, which exposed the trend of those who contributed to school bond campaigns receiving the contracts they spent money influencing. The improved disclosures MSRB is mandating will be available through the Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) system, which is the free public platform for searching municipal bond information maintained by MSRB. Our comments also suggest the Board consider two more steps it could take toward 21st century disclosure.

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It’s Complicated: State and Local Government Relationships

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Crafting useful transparency recommendations for local government requires taking the time to understand the complexities of policy-making at this level. To engage thoughtfully in this, we have to better understand the relationships between municipalities and states. Understanding how governments function and interact with each other is essential to understanding where and how transparency reforms will make a difference. When we look at local governments, we have to consider not only how that government is structured, but also how it operates in relation to the state structures that surround it. We use cities as an example in this post for the sake of consistency and clarity, but these different relationships can apply across the spectrum of municipal governments and municipal government structures. There are two basic types of interaction between cities and states:

  • A general law city has a structure largely shaped by a state's law or constitution. The municipality can adopt local ordinances setting rules for its residents, but only within the range allowed by state law. This format can also be shaped by Dillon's Rule, which essentially means that local governments only have the powers granted to them by the state. There is debate about the challenges and benefits of this system. Some local governments feel the rule restricts them when they try to deal with evolving issues such as a growing population with changing needs. A general law city would have to seek power from the state to deal with new problems if that authority hasn't already been explicitly granted, and that's where this system can be seen as a constraint.
  • A charter city or home rule city functions more autonomously from state laws and regulations. These cities have a charter establishing how government will be structured, what its duties are, and what local ordinances will be. The process for creating a charter or revising an existing charter varies from state to state. Any municipality with a charter is still subject to state laws, however. It might have more authority to deal with local issues, but any laws it sets are subject to the state law and constitution. Even in the places that have home rule, they might sometimes feel more like a general law city if the state is aggressive with the amount of legislation it passes impacting local policies and authority.

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Inside City Hall

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city-hall-sign We’ve already looked at a few technical definitions of municipal government in the United States, but what about the differences in how local governments are run? It turns out there's a great degree of variability in political structure, and understanding this diversity is an important factor in understanding how policy is made and how the public interacts with and accesses government information. Here are a few of the most common structures for municipal governments:

  • A mayor-council system has a mayor serving in the executive position and a council as its legislative branch. The mayor might be chosen by council members or elected by residents. Council members are chosen in a separate election from the mayor and can represent different districts in a city or a city at large. There is plenty of variance in the relationships between mayors and councils. In a strong mayor system, the mayor can appoint department or agency heads with approval from the council and has veto power for legislation the council passes. In a weak mayor system, the mayor lacks these powers and the council holds most of the policy power.

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How MuniLand Sees Cities

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As part of our municipal work here at Sunlight, we're inviting various people to share their take on what makes a city and why transparency at this level is important. Today's post is from Cate Long, a guest contributor to Reuters.com on the municipal bond market.  By Cate Long Alisha Green of Sunlight Foundation is working on a project to identify the ways that different types of data are used to describe cities. She put up a great post that sketches out a number of ways to view a city demographically, including population density, unemployment and housing. She asked me recently to write about how I personally view cities. I think of cities almost entirely as cash flow machines that collect taxes and provide social services. That is muniland. Here are Alisha’s questions and my answers: 1. From your point of view, what is a city? Cities are legal entities that are incorporated to provide essential services; especially police, fire, education and water and sewer systems. Depending on the state, cities have legal authority to enter contracts, collect specific types of taxes and maintain judicial systems. Many cities also provide more expansive social services including care of the elderly and disabled and maintenance of parks and hospitals.

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18 New Ways of Visualizing A City

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The way we visualize and compare cities says much about our understanding of how they work. As part of our ongoing exploration of what makes a city, we wanted to survey how people are using data to describe the political, geographical and social realities cities face. Below, we've compiled some unique visualizations. Some of these center around cities in the common sense of the word, focusing on large urban areas, but we think these images as a group help expand the understanding of the diversity of all kinds of municipalities. We aren't demographers, but we aren't working in a vacuum, either. As we continue to engage in open data work, we hope to contribute to the kind of information that powers these visuals and help create the resources for the next wave of municipal understanding.

POPULATION DENSITY

1. This 2010 U.S. Census map, from a report about population change, shows population-weighted density by metropolitan statistical area. That's a complicated way of essentially saying the map shows how tightly packed people are on average in metropolitan areas, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. The map shows how people generally are more condensed in metropolitan areas along the East and West coasts than they are in metropolitan areas in the middle of the country. population-weighted-density-for-US-metros

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What is a City?

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As we expand on our vision for local government transparency, we realize we need to start with defining what we mean by local. The general scope of the work we’re taking on is targeted at the idea of “municipal” government, something we’ve been referring to internally as city government, though we’ve quickly realized it’s not that simple. Municipal government takes many forms, and if we’re being accurate, we have to set our scope a bit wider. In the United States, a municipal government is a local government that has been authorized or incorporated according to state constitutions and statutes. Depending on the state, a municipality could be a city, town, or village, or even a borough or township. There are more than 19,000 incorporated places (e.g. municipalities), according to 2010 U.S. Census data, and they vary dramatically in size, shape, and structure.

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