Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.Anne Galloway is the founder of VTDigger.org -- a statewide news website in Vermont that publishes watchdog reports on state government, politics, consumer affairs, business and public policy. She has worked as a reporter and editor in Vermont for 17 years covering the Vermont Legislature, the governor and state government. Anne can be reached at email@example.com.
In 2010, I began reporting on campaign contributions in Vermont. That year, we had an open seat in the governor’s office and there were five candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. I was shocked to discover that the only information available from the Vermont Secretary of State’s office came in the form of unsearchable PDF scans of spreadsheet forms. The secretary requires that candidates use a form available in Excel on the state website. Candidates fill out the form and submit it in paper format to the secretary. It is then scanned and posted on the website.
In spite of the fact that there was no easy way to search the information, I began scouring the web for information about people, advocacy groups and businesses. I soon discovered that many businesses, political action committees and unions had direct financial connections to the candidates. I wrote a series of investigative stories about contributions from out of state, from businesses and wealthy individuals to candidates of the two major parties in statewide races.
We revealed that paving and signage companies donated thousands of dollars to a candidate for lieutenant governor who had served as chair of Senate Transportation and who owned a road construction and engineering firm. We also tracked a donor who contributed four times to Peter Shumlin, using four different LLCs. The Associated Press picked up our story about David Blittersdorf’s contributions and the more than $4 million in state tax subsidies that he garnered for his company’s solar projects.
As a result of these stories, news organizations and others pressured the secretary of state to develop a searchable campaign finance database in 2011. Though the secretary has said he is willing to take on the project, he has been unable to obtain funding. This fall, the secretary put out an RFP for the project, which would be completed in 2015 (at the earliest).Continue reading
OpenGov Voices: 3 simple ways cities can improve access to online information
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.
Matt MacDonald is the co-founder and president at NearbyFYI. NearbyFYI collects city government data and documents, helping make local government information accessible and understood. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Matt is also one of the winners of Sunlight Foundation’s OpenGov Grants.
At NearbyFYI we review online information and documents from hundreds of city and town websites. Our CityCrawler service has found and extracted text from over 100,000 documents for the more than 170 Vermont cities and towns that we track. We're adding new documents and municipal websites all the time, and we wanted to share a few tips that make it easier for citizens to find meeting minutes, permit forms and documents online. The information below is written for a non-technical audience but some of the changes might require assistance from your webmaster, IT department or website vendor.Create a unique web page for each document or form
Each city or town meeting that occurs should have its own unique web page for agenda items, meeting minutes and other documents. We often see cities and towns creating a single, very large web page that contains an entire year of meeting minutes. This may be convenient for the person posting the meeting minutes online but presents a number of challenges for the citizen who is trying to find a specific meeting agenda or the minutes from that meeting.
Here is an example of meeting minutes that are in a single page that requires the citizen to scroll and scroll to find what they are looking for. This long archived page structure also presents challenges to web crawlers and tools that look to create structured information from the text. Proctor, VT provides a good example for what we look for in a unique meeting minutes document. We like that this document can answer the following questions:
Which town created the document? (Proctor)
What type of document is this? (Meeting Minutes)
Which legislative body is responsible for the document (Selectboard)
When was the meeting? (November 27, 2012 - it's better to use a full date format like this)
Which board members attended the meeting? (Eric, Lloyd, Vincent, Bruce, William)
The only thing that could improve the access to this document is if it was saved as a plain text file rather than a PDF file. Creating a single web page or document for each meeting means that citizens don't have to scan very large documents to find what they are looking for.Continue reading
States Lead on E-Filing, Will the Senate Catch Up?
It seems our Senators have a thing or two learn from their home states when it comes to campaign finance reporting: 31 states currently require mandatory electronic reporting ("e-filing") of their elected representative's campaign finance records -- a leap above our Senate, which has failed to pass no-brainer e-filing legislation for over a decade. Sunlight conducted a review of the current state of similar filings in the states (see chart below), and the results are pretty surprising -- in a great way. State governments across the country -- 92% of them, in fact -- require at least optional, if not mandatory electronic filing for both houses of their bicameral legislatures.Continue reading
Sunlight Weekly Roundup: Bernie Sanders calls Citizens United “a complete undermining of democracy”
In our continued effort to highlight the anniversary of January 2010’s Citizens United decision, all of this month’s weekly roundups... View ArticleContinue reading
Sunlight Weekly Round-up: Vermont listens to call for transparency
It may not be all that, but the fact that actions from citizens have moved government hard enough for them... View ArticleContinue reading