OPEN GOVERNMENT -- A survey by the San Diego Union-Tribune shows local public agencies increasingly using the Internet to keep the community informed about decisions made—or about to be made—at public meetings, and how to reach key staff and elected officials.

For example, reports staff writer Anne Krueger, "Information about the business being discussed at Helix Water
District meetings is now just a computer click away, with the water
district joining other East County government agencies in providing
more access to the public on the Web."

In addition to an agenda for last week's board meeting,
the district also posted on its Web site the staff reports and backup
information given to board members.

Other government agencies have been providing the
information online for years, but Helix General Manager Mark Weston
said security and technical issues kept the district from putting the
information online.

Dexter Levy, a 71-year-old retired plumber who lives in La
Mesa, said he found the online information useful as he follows the
district's plans to increase its rates.

“It's going to help alleviate the perception of non-transparency,” Levy said.

The reports offer a much fuller view of the topics that a government
board is considering. For example, while the Helix agenda listed a
three-line item on a new rate study, the board package included a
10-page rate report, breaking down all the costs for Helix customers.

The Union-Tribune reviewed the Web sites of East
County's major government entities: four cities, 10 school districts,
the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District and the Grossmont
Healthcare District. Each site was studied to determine whether viewers
could view board agendas and reports provided to board members and
whether the e-mail addresses of staffers and elected officials were
provided.

The cities and agencies showed varying levels of Web
savviness and openness. Some had lots of easily accessible information,
while others had less information or made it challenging to find.

Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, an
open-government group based in Carmichael, said government agencies
aren't legally required to post agendas on the Web – but they should.

“A district or city or county is well-advised to use
technology to put everything in the window that it can so people are
less likely to be surprised,” he said.

Government meetings in California are guided by the Ralph
M. Brown Act, enacted in 1953. It requires government bodies to post
their agendas and give notice of meetings at least 72 hours in advance.

Before the Internet, government agencies often complied
with the act by posting their agendas on their office window a few days
before a meeting. They still do that, but more often they also post
their agendas on their Web sites.

Francke said he doubts the Brown Act will be updated to
require Web posting of agendas because government entities – even
agencies that already post the information on the Web – could then
demand that the state reimburse them for the cost of complying with the
law.

All of the East County cities and agencies surveyed posted
their basic agendas on the Web. All but two smaller agencies – the
Lakeside Water District and the Dehesa School District – also post
backup reports on their Web sites.

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The Grossmont Union High School District also posts videos from its
meetings on its Web site. El Cajon and La Mesa televise their council
meetings on public access television.

All of the East County government entities provide e-mails
for staff members, with some offering individual e-mail addresses for
department heads and others providing a general e-mail address for the
agency.

Steve Van Zant, superintendent of the Mountain Empire
Unified School District, said he gets four or five e-mails a week from
parents.

“It's a good way for people to track me down, to find me and let me know what they're thinking,” Van Zant said.

*****

The Otay Water District is the only water district in East
County that provides individual e-mail addresses for its board members
on its Web site. The Helix district provides an e-mail address for the
board but not for individual members. Helix Board President Richard
Smith said he prefers having the board secretary pass on e-mails from
constituents.

“She could contact us, and we would have the option that we would respond or not,” Smith said.

Otay's Web site also provides e-mail addresses and phone numbers for
all of its supervising employees. In addition to staff reports, it
includes PowerPoint presentations to be given at meetings.

“The principle we were after in the design of our Web site
was transparency,” said Geoff Stevens, Otay's chief information
officer. “We wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to get
information about the district.”