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Monday, June 20, 2011

Nashua lauded for Web transparency

When judging the availability of public records on the Internet, Nashua has other New Hampshire cities beat by a metaphorical gigabyte.

The state of New Hampshire, in contrast, doesn’t stand out – nor does it fail – when graded on Web transparency.

Then, there is the town of Mason, light years behind other government entities when it comes to computer access of public information.

These Web assessments were provided by Sunshine Review, a nonprofit organization that studies the transparency of states, cities, towns and school districts across the country.

This being the digital age, people expect public officials to provide any and all information on the Internet. So Sunshine Review set about reviewing a slice of Web offerings throughout New Hampshire.

The organization devised a 10-point checklist of information that Web sites should have, and graded a handful of New Hampshire’s government entities on the criteria. The checklist included accessibility to budgets, contracts, open meeting laws and contact information for public officials.

The city of Nashua got top honors among the four cities that were examined, earning an “A-” grade. Concord and Manchester each received a “B” and Rochester got a “C.” Portsmouth, Keene and the state’s seven other cities haven’t been reviewed yet.

Nashua got affirmative check marks in nine of the 10 review categories, including meeting agendas and minutes, contact information for officials and employees, audits and contracts.

The only area in which Nashua received a negative “X” was for information about the city’s lobbying contracts.

The city fared better in Sunshine Review’s eyes than did the state of New Hampshire. NH.gov received a “C” grade.

Among the state’s Web site’s good features, Sunshine Review found, was that it offers the budget, tax information, contracts and contact information for state officials.

But NH.gov earns low scores, Sunshine Review says, for having a search function that is “somewhat difficult to navigate,” not containing data on lobbyists and lobbying expenditures, and not offering information on state ethics and how to make public record requests.

Several local school districts earned low grades from Sunshine Review: Hudson (C-), Hollis/Brookline (C-), Nashua (C-) and Merrimack (D).

Merrimack School District was one step removed from failing because its Web site failed to provide information on criminal background checks, contracts, audits and contact information for the employee who handles public information requests, Sunshine Review said.

The organization lumped several local towns in with cities. Nonetheless, Amherst, Brookline and Hollis each received a “C” grade for their official Web sites.

Mason was also reviewed, for some reason. The town, which received an “F,” doesn’t even have an official Web site; a resident created a non-official cyber page with various listings until Mason officials step into the 21st Century.

Kristin McMurray, senior editor for Sunshine Review, said the organization hopes to eventually cover every government entity in the U.S. Sunshine Review created its checklist criteria after surveying what people want on the Web, she said.

Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau said she was pleased the city fared well, and that her staff will review how it can place lobbying information online. The city contracts with the Local Government Center, she said.

Having every public record available on the Internet is “effective and efficient,” Lozeau said.

Residents can review records at their own leisure, and avoid having to ask for documents they normally wouldn’t request face-to-face from a city employee, she said.

For more information, visit http://sunshinereview.org/core/home.

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com.