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OGC Final Recommendations

Burlington Committee on Open Government  

Tim Ashe, Margaret Bozik, Geoffrey Crawford, Richard Haesler, Damon Lane, Steve McIntyre, David Mindich, Jeff Royer, Chip Sawyer, Joan Shannon. Ben Pacy, Minutes.

Preamble

The Vermont Constitution (chapter 1, article 6) reads, "That all power being originally inherent in and consequently derived from the people, therefore, all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants; and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them."

The Burlington Committee on Open Government, constituted by the Burlington City Council and the mayor’s office, embraces the spirit of the above passage.  Although "all people... have a right to privacy in their personal and economic pursuits" (Vermont State Statute, Title 1 sec. 315), "it is in the public interest to enable any person to review and criticize [the] decisions [of public officials] even though the examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment" (ibid).   Whenever possible, government actions should be held up to scrutiny.

Open government in Burlington requires not only transparency but also an effective means of communicating the activities of the city, including information about how citizens can effect change.  To that end, the Committee on Open Government recommends an improvement of Internet communication, a greater effort to disseminate information about public meetings, and a wider distribution of information relating to development issues.

Committee on Open Government: Web Recommendations

Recommendations: Organizational / Implementation

  1. The Burlington IT department— its personnel and functions— need to be centralized. A new Burlington page should be the umbrella for all other city Web sites. IT functions throughout the city should be uniform, with one content management system. Individual departments will still be able to put their artistic stamp on (and retain their unique expertise pertaining to) their Web pages, but each page should be recognizable as under Burlington’s central umbrella.
  2. All content across departments should be searchable from Burlington’s main Web page and anywhere else within the City site.  Content recorded previous to the time of implementation of database storage should be entered in a reverse chronology of at least three years. Updating of the previous year should be completed within six months. Priority should be given to the posting of past city council, board of finance, planning commission, and development review board minutes.
  3. Individual city departments must be able to post their announcements, agendas, minutes, and other documents directly to their portion of the city’s Web site.  The protocol for posting should be uniform across the city, with a shared content management system.
  4. A regular bulletin should be posted on the city’s Web site.  This bulletin would appear either weekly or fortnightly and would summarize the top activities of the city.  Compiling this letter may be a new function of the mayor’s office.
  5. The city should implement RSS feeds and e-mail notices for residents interested in getting alerts about key issues.
  6. The city council and mayor’s office should explore ways to expand computer and Web access in the city, particularly for low income residents.
  7. The city should look into implementing a geographic information system (GIS) on its Web site.

Recommendations: Improving Access

  1. Except in the case of emergencies, meetings should be announced online on the city’s event page one week prior to scheduled meeting times.  If the meeting is not entered on the online events schedule prior to the meeting date, the meeting should be rescheduled.  Agendas, with hyperlinked proposed resolutions, should be posted, too.  All non-confidential documents should be supplied on the details page announcing the meeting, including city council packets.
  2. Draft minutes of meetings should be posted within five days of a meeting and approved minutes should be posted within a week of approval.
  3. When a hyperlink of an audio or video transcript is available, summary minutes are acceptable; however, approved resolutions and roll call outcomes of all votes must always be posted in full with the minutes. The city should explore the feasibility of increasing the digital recording of minutes, including the expansion of CCTV’s coverage.
  4. The city should convey information (internally and externally) electronically and digitally (including through Burlington Telecom) whenever possible.
  5. All city Web pages should have a place for public feedback.

Improving Access to Information about and Participation in the Development Process

A.   Issue:  People would like to know about development projects earlier in the process – before DRB hearings, for example.

Recommendations:

  1. P&Z already publishes an online list of all applications received, updated daily.  This list should be sorted by ward to make it easier to read, and its existence should be more broadly promoted.
  2. More than one set of direct mailings to residents could be sent out.  Notice of the DRB hearing is legally mandated, and can’t be replaced by an earlier mailing.  However, an earlier separate mailing could be sent out when an application is received, with costs on major projects to be borne by the developer.
  3. At one time, the P&Z website included a summary of major projects that included projects in the conceptual stage (i.e., potential major projects going out several years).  That summary should be revived as a complement to the more comprehensive list.
  4. The P&Z website should include more information about major development projects, with links to plans.

B.   Issue:  People don’t understand the development review process, and therefore don’t know what the opportunities for participation are.

Recommendations:

  1. P&Z should develop a brief, easy-to-read explanation of the process that will be followed for each application.  This explanation should be attached (by code, for instance) to the online application list.  It should also be added to the direct mailings that go out.  The “Z” card should refer people to the website for further information on process and the project.
  2. As dates for meetings and hearings on particular projects are developed, they should be linked/posted to the projects list – especially for larger projects.  People should be able to easily track a project throughout the process.

C.   Issue:  More people should know about development projects, so they can have the opportunity to decide whether to become involved.

Recommendations:

  1. P&Z should be commended for going beyond the legally mandates for direct notice of the DRB process, and encouraged to continue to expand and improve on their methods of doing so.
  2. No direct notice is currently given on administratively-approved projects.  Abutters should receive mailed notice on some of these projects.  P & Z staff should define which types of projects warrant notice to neighbors and at a minimum should include major additions and new construction and demolitions.

D.   Issue:  The Neighborhood Planning Assemblies should have greater opportunities for participation in the process involving projects in their neighborhoods.

Recommendations:

  1. P&Z’s online projects list should be reorganized by ward, so that NPA Steering Committee members could check the list before each NPA meeting and bring it forward as an agenda item.
  2. NPA Steering Committee members should be automatically signed onto an e-mail list of meetings and hearings pertaining to development projects in their ward.  Steering Committee members could use the Front Porch Forums to circulate information about projects they believe are significant.
  3. NPAs could be given a more formal role in the development process.  For example, developers could be required to contact NPA Steering Committees and offer to present to the NPAs on “major” development projects (those going through the Technical Review process) within the next two months.  This potential action item should be a topic of discussion at the September Open Government Neighborhood Improvement Nights and in the discussions before the Community Development Committee of City Council on the role of the NPAs.

E.  Issue:  The public should have more information about CEDO’s role in development projects.

Recommendations:

  1. CEDO should develop an “FAQ” sheet explaining the existing opportunities to learn about and to have input into the investment of public resources in development projects.  This sheet should also identify what CEDO services are confidential, and how the results of those services are reported publicly in an aggregate fashion.

General Recommendations:

  1. The recommendations under issues A, B, and C, as well as recommendations D1 and D2, should be referred Planning & Zoning, with a report back to City Council by that department within 3 months on feasibility and costs.
  2. All of the departments involved in action recommendations should report back to City Council within six months on the status of implementation of the recommendations.
  3. The Code Enforcement Office currently has no citizen oversight.  City Council should consider providing some form of citizen oversight to the department.
  4. The Code Enforcement Office should develop an FAQ sheet that includes an explanation of its processes and the remedies available if someone is not satisfied with the response.
  5. City Council should hold a public hearing on Open Government at least once a year and either act on the issues presented, request the city administration to act or refer issues to an Open Government Committee with diverse citizen representation.
  6. A significant minority of the committee felt that the City Council should constitute an ongoing Open Government Committee that is diverse (in terms of ethnicity, gender, economics, geography, and other factors) and includes members of the public.
  7. The process for appointing Board and Commission members should be improved as follows:
  8. The Clerk Treasurers Office should look for ways to make openings more widely known.
  9. The Clerk Treasurers Office should make the application form more clear and standardized, with an accompanying explanation of process and City Council’s usual practice in nominating and approving appointments.  The form and the explanation should be posted online.
  10. The Clerk Treasurers Office should notify sitting Commissioners two months in advance of the need to reapply when their terms expire.
  11. City Council should enforce any stated deadline for applications.
  12. City Council should reopen the application process only after publicly announcing that it is unwilling to nominate anyone from the existing applicant pool.

Additional notes:

The Open Government Committee held seven public meetings over the course of the summer.  The minutes of those meetings, as well as additional public comment submitted to the Committee, are attached as an Appendix to this Report.  It is the Committee’s intent that this Report be presented to the Neighborhood Planning Assemblies at the September Neighborhood Improvements Nights and then to City Council at its September 22, 2008 meeting.

Last Updated on Friday, 15 January 2010 04:20  

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