Rowan earns A+ for online records
By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY - Rowan County now has the highest transparency grade of any local government in the state, according to the John Locke Foundation.
Through its N.C. Transparency Project, John Locke Foundation scores county and municipal governments in North Carolina on the amount of public information they make available online.
Spokesperson Mitch Kokai said Rowan can thank County Commissioner Jim Sides for its high marks.
He said Sides sent an email telling the foundation that the county had posted all of the scored items online, but the N.C. Transparency website still listed four as "unavailable" - contracts, future liability for retirees, audit reports and a capital improvement plan.
"All of these resources are currently listed on the Rowan County website under our Transparency link, along with other resources not required by your agency for rating purposes," Sides wrote in the Aug. 9 email. "I look forward to seeing Rowan County listed as the only A+ transparency county on your website very soon."
In a phone interview, Sides said he alone shouldn't get the credit.
"I brought it to their attention, but I'm not responsible," he said. "The employees are the ones that actually did it. At very little cost to the county, they put out there all the things that the John Locke Foundation requires to meet an A+ rating."
Soon, he said, the county plans to go even further and post its full meeting agendas online for the public.
"They'll know at the same time we know what information is available and what's going to be on the agenda before the meeting," Sides said.
Back in March, Rowan got another grade adjustment from a C to an A. That's when - again spurred along by Sides - the county added a transparency page to its website (found in a "related links" menu on the left).
Now, the county has made all of the scored items available online, including its checkbook, number of employees, comprehensive annual financial report, salaries of employees by job code, annual financial information report, budget, health expenses, revenue report, transportation improvement plan and salaries of employees earning $50,000 or more.
These are all public records, but until recently people had to submit specific requests for most of them. The records would sometimes be provided on paper, and the county would charge a fee for copies.
"The things we picked that we thought should be online are the types of things that voters and taxpayers should have access to if they want to keep tabs on what their local governments are doing," Kokai said.
He said Rowan County is the first governing body in North Carolina to earn the top grade, and he hopes others follow its lead.
"I think it's a good sign that local governments are looking into the issue of transparency," Kokai said. "If there's a competitive spirit among these counties, other counties with an A or B grade might see Rowan County is an A+ and say, 'Wait a minute, why aren't we an A+? Does it take much to get one?'"
Cabarrus County and the cities of Salisbury and Kannapolis all have a B grade, but the rest of the towns in Rowan County are given a D.
In August, the Spencer Town Board chose not to act on a suggestion from Alderman Jeff Morris to add more transparency information to the town's website. Board members said it would take staff time to post the many documents, and Spencer does not have the same financial resources that Rowan County has. Alderman Reid Walters said the John Locke Foundation itself lacks transparency and is difficult to work with.
Kokai said he would be thrilled if all of the governments got high grades, but in order to raise their scores, people need to let the foundation know that their county or municipality deserves more credit.
More information about the John Locke Foundation transparency ratings can be found at www.nctransparency.com.