Demystifying the budget
E-gov will get a big boost in Virginia this fall when the auditor of public accounts goes online with a user-friendly Web site on the state budget and state spending.
Following Sen. Stosch’s lead, the 2005 General Assembly directed the auditor not only to post 10 years’ worth of figures, but to track spending trends so citizens can follow the financial “paper trail.”
Statistical trends also will be included, such as school enrollment, prison populations and income levels.
Stosch said he hopes the Web site will provide “needed information” on taxes and spending, topics that have bitterly divided legislators and confused the public, and that this information will “go a long way in restoring the people’s trust in how their tax dollars are being spent.”
Virginia has already come a long way in information technology, according to the Center for Digital Government.
Three years ago, Virginia was in the bottom half of an annual digital survey ranking states’ use of technology.
Just one year later, the commonwealth ranked sixth among the 50 states.
Last year it was third.
Landfill data now on-line
Do you live near a dump? Want to find out? Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has begun posting landfill information on the Internet. The data identifies old or abandoned landfills, and some that are legal.
A Virginian-Pilot editorial said, “The agency should have been raising alerts years ago. It was shamed into action following The Pilot’s reports about Chesapeake subdivisions built on or near former dumps.” DEQ also announced several on-line projects to make information about permits and regulations more useful to the public.
Lawmakers’ gifts online
The non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project has placed online the list of meals, gifts and trips that General Assembly members reported receiving in 2004. The information was drawn from the Statement of Economic Interests forms that lawmakers file each January. VPAP provides an eight-page list of all companies that provided gifts and trips; top gift givers and “gifts by type” also are linked to each legislator by search engine.
School system cited
The Newport News school system was cited as one of the best school systems nationally in its use of educational technology.
The system is connecting schools with fiber optic cable, allowing it to become its own Internet and telephone service provider.
A video network links nearly every classroom with instructional video resources and information, enabling teachers to select specific video and cable programming for their classes.
Scholastic Administrator magazine cited the system in its June edition.
Norfolk on camera, at last?
Norfolk’s council meetings may finally be televised – two decades after Virginia Beach and Chesapeake turned on the cameras. A Virginian-Pilot editorial said, “Televising government meetings will build citizenship behind the camera and accountability in front of it. One wonders what Norfolk’s elected officials who oppose airing the meetings are so afraid of. Citizen complaints about no-show council members? Fear of airing loopy or questionable ideas? Letting folks see where politicians want to spend their tax dollars?” Suffolk took the step in 1987, Portsmouth in 1990. Hampton, Newport News and Williamsburg have signed on. Ditto for Alexandria, Charlottesville, Arlington and Fairfax counties, Richmond and Roanoke.
“You get the picture. Except if you’re in Norfolk,” said the Pilot.
(Editor’s note: The same could be said for the House of Delegates, which still won’t permit televising and Web-casting of its floor sessions.)
Ostergren posts more SSN’s
CIA Director Porter Goss is a man with secrets, but in Lee County, Fla., his Social Security number isn’t one of them. The federal official is one of an untold number of people who do business in the county whose identification number is listed on documents available online through the county clerk. Goss’ information appears on a warranty deed that dates back to 1997. It appears along with his signature on the last page of a document few people would want to look for, let alone find.
Virginia “watchdog” B. J. Ostergren is looking, though, and she’s concerned that people with less noble intentions are as well. Ostergren has drawn national attention to Goss’ Social Security number and to Lee County by listing the documents on her Web site and repeatedly referencing them in interviews with reporters across the country.
Lee Circuit Court Clerk Charlie Green doesn’t see the reason for the fuss. He knew Goss’ Social Security number was online in the county before Ostergren found it and said he thinks Goss does, too. “He’s the director of the CIA and it doesn’t bother him.”
Ostergren rails against online display of such documents, calling it “spoon-feeding” criminals who might want to take someone’s identity, be it John Smith’s or Porter Goss’. Ostergren said she doesn’t have a problem with mortgages, deeds and court documents being open to those who want to look for them. But she thinks they should only be available at the courthouse where they are filed, not internationally over the Internet.
Having unearthed Social Security numbers for Colin Powell, Tom Delay and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ostergren publicizes the information most people see as private in the hopes those politicians will be shamed or discomforted into changing public records laws. In Florida, anyone can contact that clerk’s office and fill out a form to take a document offline. Perhaps 50 individuals in 10 years have asked to have the documents taken offline, Green told the Naples Daily News.
A Florida committee has recommended that court records be available online. Meantime, a moratorium on electronic access to most of the state’s court records remains in place as the committee studies the issue.
School closings online
Staff, students and parents involved in the Waynesboro school system no longer have to wait for the newspaper or television or radio reports to learn that bad weather has closed schools. Now, just by registering their name and e-mail address on the Waynesboro Schools Web site, they can receive e-mail weather updates from the school district. Waynesboro learned of the idea from a Northern Virginia school division about a year ago.
Dangerous-dog Web pages
Fairfax County has posted a “dangerous dog” Web page: The site lists 39 dogs deemed dangerous by the county. The listing also includes the owner’s name and address, dog description and the type of bite (human or animal) that resulted in the listing. Spotsylvania County also announced it is providing an Internet list of dangerous dogs under the Animal Control section of that county’s Web site. It also will include the dog’s description and breed, and owner’s name and address, officials said.
Roanoke County: Digital-savvy
For the second year running, Roanoke County was named the most high-tech county in the country for its size. That’s according to the Center for Digital Government’s 2005 Digital Counties Survey, which ranked applications from 184 counties across the country.
It evaluated those counties by the kinds of services they provide to their citizens - things like allowing users to apply for a job, request a county record or building permit and report things like potholes or graffiti online.
The survey also looked at the bigger picture – whether a county has “a top-notch infrastructure and architecture for [its information technology] system,” as well as good management and a strategic plan, program manager Janet Grenslitt said.
Being high-tech is more than just having a lot of gadgets. It’s also about putting them to good use.
Take e-mail. “Just the fact we have widely published e-mail addresses, it’s amazing how much contact we have day to day with the public,” said Assistant County Administrator Dan O’Donnell.
Technology allows the county government to be more responsive to its citizens, O’Donnell said, and people are jumping on the bandwagon.
“The use of the telephone and the old paper letter has really decreased,” he said.
Loudoun also honored
Loudoun County won two public information awards of excellence from the National Association of County Information Officers this year – one for its Web site and another for its 2004 Annual Report.
Also, the Eastern Loudoun Regional Library and the Ashburn Library recently installed Wi-Fi – wireless Internet – making it possible for anyone with a wireless-enabled laptop to access the Internet for free, stay online as long as the library is open and never again have to wait for a terminal. Another recent offering is downloadable audiobooks.
GIS aids disclosure
The Virginia Public Access Project announced a major upgrade to its Web site, allowing visitors to pinpoint where in Virginia candidates raise their campaign donations.
VPAP invested in software that translates the donor’s mailing address into a precise point on a GIS map. While mapping still may be on the horizon, the software provides VPAP.org with a precise geographic breakdown for candidates’ donors.
In the past, VPAP determined the locality of a donor by the mailing address.
For example, people with an Alexandria mailing address were assigned to the City of Alexandria, even if they lived in Fairfax County. The software enables VPAP to place people in the exact locality where they reside. In general, some of the money that had been assigned to core cities was shifted to neighboring counties.
E-gov has yet to hit the U.S. Senate, even in campaign-finance disclosure. A Washington Post editorial called the Senate “the dinosaur of disclosure: Senators running for reelection – and those who seek to replace them – mail paper reports to the office of the Secretary of the Senate, which scans them page by page into its computers and then sends them on to the Federal Election Commission. The FEC then must manually keypunch the data into its own computers for inclusion in its electronic database.”
E-mail the mayor
Every other Wednesday Richmond Mayor Doug Wilder answers questions sent via e-mail: