City to launch new transparency website

Ani Ajith

The City of Evanston is set to update its new transparency website in mid-February with the text of its contracts, which will give Evanston residents easier access to information about how the city spends its money.

The transparency website will soon feature bids and proposals, a bills list – including credit card transactions, which were not previously available – budgets, department reports, executive session minutes, pension reports, salary breakdowns and graphics of tax information.

Currently, only some details of city contracts are currently available on the transparency section of the city website. City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz noted the salaries section displays information broken down by each “bargaining unit” such as union or nonunion, which he said is an improvement over a recent Freedom of Information Act-prompted salary data release that simply listed names and corresponding salaries.

After the update, pay plans on the website will include pay grades, job titles, union contracts and city-provided benefits.

The transparency website, unveiled at the City Council meeting on Jan. 10, is part of an effort by the city government to make information more accessible to the public. The City Council identified transparency as the main focus in the “efficiency and effectiveness of services” area when it set top priorities for government improvements two years in a row, in September 2009 and 2010.

Bobkiewicz said the new transparency website – located under the ‘Government’ tab on the city home page – is just the latest step in that effort.

“We felt like we really didn’t do a good enough job putting … all of the ways we do our business, the ways we spend our money, in one place,” Bobkiewicz said at the Jan. 10 City Council meeting.

Working with city Web developer Erika Sterlie, Bobkiewicz spent several months examining websites of communities around the country, observing the types of information they released and then compared the data available with the information available on Evanston’s website.

Ald. Donald Wilson (4th) highlighted the bills list in the transparency section as a prime example of the “greater ease in providing more information,” as bills were previously “buried in a massive document” in a hard-to-find part of the website.

“As a general proposition, all aldermen were interested in getting more information more readily available,” Wilson said, “instead of searching the website extensively for old documents.”

The first-term alderman said he hopes the new website will help resolve the issue that “just kept coming back in my campaign … that people don’t know about spending, about problems with pensions” and dispel myths about city council members.

“A lot of people assume aldermen have offices and staff, but we don’t have offices in the civic center,” he said. “I have a day job, and we don’t have exorbitant salaries.”

The city manager said residents are encouraged to submit suggestions online for the release of additional information.

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