COLUMN: Make public info easily available

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By David Giuliani

Over the last year, the city has seen some improvements on its web site. And that probably has something to do with the fact that the Internet is second nature to Mayor Tony Marquez, who started last March. He insisted on a better site when he took over.

That’s in sharp contrast to our last mayor, Henry Sanchez, who didn’t use computers at all. Not surprisingly, the city’s Internet site was a backwater during Sanchez’s reign.

These days, the city posts all of its press releases and announces meetings and even occasionally places agendas on its web site.

But there are definitely opportunities for improvement on the site. For instance, neither the fire nor police departments have pages on the site. And these two public safety departments make up half of the city government. Another major department, public works, is listed on the site, but there is no page, only a message that states, “Coming soon,” which has been there for months.

Government in general doesn’t take advantage of the Internet in getting information out to the people — you know, the folks who pay the bills.

Just look at the state Senate. This august body freaked out when one of its members had the nerve to webcast a committee meeting. The objecting senators were showing their age; if the Senate had been a bunch of twentysomethings — who document their entire lives on the Internet (think Twitter and MySpace) — it would never have been an issue.

What’s more, the Senate rejected a bill that would have given a searchable database for the state’s budget. These guys were apparently afraid that the rest of us could find out how they’re spending our money.

Whenever I submit a public records request, I feel like I’m taking part in an ancient ritual. A few years ago, I had to pay the county government $13 for its budget summary. I couldn’t help but wonder why the county couldn’t just put such documents online and let everyone see how our money is being spent.  The same goes for the city and many other government entities.

At City Hall, just one guy, Diego Trujillo, has the know-how to post onto the city’s web site. He’s the resident computer whiz, but he’s got plenty of other responsibilities.

Several other people should be trained on how to add information to the site. When I ask the city clerk’s office for a meeting agenda, the folks there tell me that they have given it to Diego to post on the web site. But if Diego is on another project, it may take him a while to get the public information out to, well, the public. It would be far better if the city clerk’s office could post the information itself. And other departments should get trained to post as well.

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For years, the city government gave local media the backup documentation for City Council meetings. That was very helpful in providing information to our readers about city business.

A few months ago, however, the city stopped this practice after a city clerk’s employee accidentally gave us a confidential document dealing with union negotiations. The city overreacted and apparently decided to no longer give us anything at all for council meetings, other than the standard meeting agenda. Why end this policy of openness because of one mistake? That makes little sense.

Last week, I talked with the new city manager, Timothy Dodge, about this lack of documentation, and he told me that he planned to provide all of this information to City Council members electronically. That would save on paper and make city operations more efficient.

Meanwhile, I hope I can convince the city to give me the paper documents until it goes high-tech.

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A few weeks ago, the Optic ran a story on the city’s ban on using hand-held cell phones while driving. Police officers issued 81 tickets for this offense in 2008.

Earlier this month, I was driving toward City Hall and I saw a city employee leave the parking lot in an oversized sport utility vehicle. As I got closer, I noticed that he was on his cell phone. When I passed by, I opened my window and told him it was against city law to be driving while using a hand-held cell phone.

I probably came off as a jerk, but is it too much to ask city employees to follow the city’s own laws?

By the way, why does a white-collar city employee need to be driving a gas-guzzling city vehicle? I know SUVs are a status symbol, but do taxpayers really have to pay for all of this extra gas to bolster an official’s ego?

David Giuliani is managing editor of the Las Vegas Optic. He may be reached at 425-6796 or dgiuliani@lasvegasoptic.com.