Vernon Hills praised in transparency study
Brian Costin (center) of the Illinois Policy Institute is shown with Vernon Hills Village Manager Mike Allison (left) and Vernon Hills Trustee Thom Koch Jr. at Vernon Hills Village Hall. The institute did a study of municipal websites in Vernon Township,
Updated: March 11, 2013 2:20AM
VERNON HILLS – The Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, studied the websites of municipalities in Vernon Township last summer and recently released its findings, giving passing grades to three of the 22 governments.
Transparency has been the project’s emphasis. Brian Costin, the institute’s director of government reform, said the Internet is becoming a prime place for information exchange and government accessibility needs to go digital.
“It’s an open book test on open books,” Costin said. “These audits measured what government does on its own without being pushed.”
The three governments given passing grades included the village of Vernon Hills (scored a 75.6 out of 100), the village of Wheeling (69.8 points) and Deerfield School District 109 (60.8 points).
Among the 100-point criteria included 10 points for listing the names, phone numbers and email addresses of elected and staff officials.
Other 10-point categories included posting meeting minutes and packets, annual financial audits, overall budgets, annual salaries and benefit expenses, expenditures, and contracts – full points given for five-years’ worth.
“About 80 percent of what we’re asking for are things posted once a year,” Costin said. “The only regular things we’re asking for are agendas, board packets, meeting minutes and expenditures. Most of that is already digital on someone’s computer.”
Some of the lowest scoring government units included Vernon Township (16.7 points), Diamond Lake School District 76 (24.1 points), College of Lake County (21.4 points) and Kildeer Countryside School District 94 (29.1 points).
After a first audit of the websites, Costin and his staff attempted to contact each municipality to share the information and encourage upgrades. A second audit was made two months later to measure any impact.
Vernon Hills originally received a score of 28.6 before making 47 points worth of upgrades.
“A lot of the information was already there, but we realized it was difficult to find,” Vernon Hills Village Manager Mike Allison said. “We did some reorganizing to make stuff more accessible.”
One upgrade was to create a page identifying the village’s paid lobbyist and the village’s affiliation to organizations that have lobbyists. Budgets and audits from multiple years ago were also added to make five years’ worth.
Both of those upgrades were what kept the village of Mundelein from a passing grade.
Mundelein scored a 34 on the first audit and a 43.5 on the second audit. Assistant Village Administrator Mike Flynn said that improvement was coincidence because neither he nor Village Administrator John Lobaito were made aware of the study.
“I think we have a very complete website,” Flynn said. “I would disagree with their assessment. I’m not saying we’re perfect but we’re not an F.”
Upon reviewing the data, Flynn realized most of the points Mundelein lost came from not having historical data.
“Two years versus five years is very arbitrary in a study like this,” Flynn said. “If people want more information, we can provide it. We never withhold information. We just rarely get requests for old budgets. We assumed the current and last year information is the most relevant to post.”
Another area where Mundelein lost points was for not disclosing lobbyist affiliations. Flynn said no such page exists because Mundelein does not contract lobbyists.
Mundelein also lost points for not disclosing expenses, to which Flynn said all contracts and purchases are in the posted board packets.
In response, Costin said he attempted to contact Village President Kenneth Kessler, Clerk Esmie Dahlstrom, each trustee, and sent messages to the village’s general email inbox.
“I did not contact the village manager or assistant village manager because their email addresses were not posted on the website,” Costin said.
Costin also said partial points are given for expenses being in board packets, and he plans to revise Mundelein’s score.
The five-year timeline was generated based on the four-year elected official term. Costin said five years allows residents to measure data through the life of an elected official’s current term and compare with the year before that election.
As for Mundelein not having a lobbyist, Costin said the village is affiliated to the Illinois Municipal League – which has lobbyists – and creating a page to disclose that affiliation is considered transparent.
Costin has conducted website studies since 2010 and admits that most governments do not purposefully withhold information, but lack the ability to predict what residents might want while researching from home.
“If something is not asked for frequently, these agencies are not used to posting it,” Costin said. “But that doesn’t mean people aren’t looking and giving up.”
Information the state of Illinois requires municipalities to post was the strongest part of each individual score. Costin said few governments lost points there, but transparency involves more than the “bare minimum.”
Community High School District 128, which encompasses Vernon Hills and Libertyville high schools, received a score of 34.4 primarily for that reason.
“We should always be looking for ways to be more transparent,” Superintendent Prentiss Lea said. “Having said that, the legislature creates laws on what must be disclosed and we follow them.”
Lea said he’s open to reviewing Costin’s research but favors direct feedback the district gathers on constituent information desires.
The most sought information, Costin said after conducting research, is employee salaries and benefits.
“Some people may not understand multimillion dollar budgets, but they definitely understand the wrong in $150,000 receptionists,” Costin said.
Since 2010, Costin and his staff have studied more than 300 municipal websites. Costin chose Vernon Township because he recently moved to Buffalo Grove and wanted to measure the transparency of his new representatives.
In the future, Costin said the Illinois Policy Institute plans to study the websites of Illinois’ top 25 populated municipalities. The 100 largest school districts, by enrollment, will also be studied.
• Staff reporter Anna Tarkov contributed to this story.