WAUSEON — Sunshine Review, a national nonprofit group that aims to encourage state and local government transparency, has given Fulton County an A+.
The county previously scored a ‘C’ in that area and even was found to have violated Ohio’s Sunshine Law, written to ensure citizens know when officials plan to hold meetings and make decisions.
In September, 1995, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rebuked the Fulton County Board of Commissioners for not posting meeting times. The court determined the commissioners violated the state’s open meetings law. The commissioners then started posting agendas and times and transcribing meeting minutes.
Nearly two decades later, the recent rise in the transparency score is being credited to enhancements to the county’s Web site. Alice Rychener, the county’s Web site coordinator, said the former score was given to an older, less advanced Web site.
“We launched a new Web site. They gave us another grade. When they grade you, they tell you what you're missing. Then we went through and saw that we’re missing information,” she said.
The organization told her the county Web site lacked important information about lobbying and membership.
Meghan Tisinger of TKO Communications, the independent communications firm with which Sunshine Review works, said Fulton County officials raised their score by posting county budgets, including proposed and previous budgets, dating to 2005. Lobbying costs and membership and dues information for lobbying groups also were added to the Web site, as well as bid opportunities and calls for contract proposals.
Ms. Rychener said the county was able to respond favorably to the suggestions. “We went through and we went ahead and entered in that information,” she said. “We tried to make it as easily accessible as possible. There’s so much information you want to put on the Web site. We tried to get as much on there as we possibly could.”
Sunshine Review commended Fulton County for making the changes quickly.
“They were very helpful,” Ms. Rychener said, adding that she also heard positive feedback from county residents. “I did talk to the board of elections just in passing,” she said. “They were saying how people call up and say how easy it is now to get the information for the upcoming election.” She said people have told her that it is now easy to find out how to get an absentee ballot. “The board of elections was really happy with it,” she said.
Ms. Rychener also said the commissioners have said it is much easier to find financial data on the Web site. She said this has helped people access information quickly and simply, from home, which was one purpose of reworking the Web site.
“They just had a lot of feedback from citizens in the county, wanting to do stuff from home and not have to come to the administration building.” Ms. Rychener said this is especially important because many county residents live several miles from the county seat.
“It’s just easier if they could log on when it’s convenient for them,” she said. “That’s what the goal was — to make things accessible, to come to grips with the times.”
The Fulton County Web site is also accessible via smart phone.