While Charlottesville and Albemarle County’s websites are not yet in need of study hall, neither has earned grades that would admit them to the University of Virginia.

According to the Sunshine Review, a website that evaluates and grades transparency on state and local government websites, both the city and the county have earned a B-. 

“We think proactive disclosure of government data is the future,” said Sunshine Review project manager Kristin McMurray. “If you want to have an engaged constituency, then you need to put the information online.”

The criterion upon which the Sunshine Review evaluates transparency includes 10 categories — from budget postings and zoning permit information, to audit reports and disclosures of relationships with lobbying groups — and localities earn a score of present, missing or incomplete for each category.

“Each category has a definition of what information should be present [on a particular government’s site],” McMurray said. “We tabulate only the categories marked ‘present,’ and each category has to fully comply [with those definitions] to earn the credit.”

For example, the definition for “audits” states that “the website should include regular audit information including: report results, audit schedules and performance audits for government programs.” A site would only earn a score of “present” if a locality published all of that information.

To translate these scores into letter grades, editors assign one point to every category that earns a “present,” with a maximum total potential score of 10. Nine to 10 points earns an A, and letter grades descend every two points.

Both Charlottesville and Albemarle scored above the statewide average grade of C, while both fell below a B+, which is the average of Virginia’s five largest counties: Arlington, Chesterfield, Fairfax, Henrico and Prince William. 

Additionally, both sites earned marks of “present” for providing information in the categories budget, meetings, elected officials, administrative officials, permits and zoning, audits and local taxes.

Charlottesville received criticism for its lack of information about any relationships the city may or may not have with taxpayer-funded lobbying associations, and because the city attorney’s office lacks information about how to submit a Freedom of Information Act request.

City director of communications Miriam Dickler said that this information is available in the budget, which is available online.

“[Publishing taxpayer-funded lobbying memberships] isn’t something I’ve seen done other places, but there’s no reason not to,” Dickler said. “We could have it more explicitly on its own page.”

City deputy attorney Richard Harris said that a citizen asking for a document initiates the FOIA process.

“There’s no magical form for a FOIA request,” Harris said. “If someone wants something and asks for it, we’re obligated to give it to them, within the bounds of the code.”

“But now that we’re talking about it, it’s not a bad idea to have something up on our website about how to make a request,” Harris added.

Similarly, Albemarle listed no information about lobbying groups, although the Virginia Association of Counties lists them as a member.  The county also scored “incomplete” in “contracts” and “public records” for a lack of or difficulty obtaining information about awarded contracts or FOIA compliance, respectively.

“It’s important to have these reviews come forward,” said Lee Catlin, assistant to the county executive for community and business partnerships. “The online environment is so fast and ever-changing, we need to know the places we’re not doing as well as we could.”

Among others, Albemarle belongs to the Virginia Association of Counties, the High Growth Coalition, the Virginia Municipal League, TransDominion Express and the local Chamber of Commerce, according to Catlin.

Albemarle chief of financial management Edward Koonce said that the county does provide contract and bid information.

“I think that the Sunshine Review did not look far enough,” Koonce said in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow. “We are clearly indicating award winners and bid results.”

“As we do provide more information than we are legally required to provide, we are always looking for ways to be more open to the public,” Koonce added.

To access contract and bid information, users are required to access an FTP site, which is available through a subsection of the county’s purchasing homepage.

Like Wikipedia, anyone can register for an account and submit a report to the Sunshine Review. Those reports are then double-checked by a small staff of editors. Albemarle’s site has been updated five times, most recently on Jan. 6. Charlottesville’s site has been updated six times, most recently on Jan. 4.

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government also has released a transparency report, titled “How Many Clicks to Get to Your Budget.”  The coalition examined the websites of the state’s counties and independent cities to establish the ease with which citizens can locate their local government’s annual budget.

Albemarle earned a C+ and Charlottesville earned a B.

In addition to the number of clicks it took to access budget information — three for Charlottesville and, as of Jan. 7, one for Albemarle — the study assigned credit based on how sites presented the document, the availability of past budgets and other helpful information, such as budget process explanations and calendars.

“Without the budget, there’s nothing else,” wrote the coalition’s executive director, Megan Rhyne, in the report’s introduction. “The budget is … the most literal way government can be held accountable.”

“We saw the report and added a budget link to the county’s homepage today,” Catlin said earlier this week.  “This link gets citizens to the budget in one click instead of the previous less direct path.”

Albemarle’s Sunshine Review page.

Charlottesville’s Sunshine Review page.

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