Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Lehigh County Local Government Web Pages: Good, Bad & Ugly

Northampton County's first webpage was its very own liberty bell, whose iron tongue sang out on July 8, 1776, to announce the Declaration of Independence. It also tolled to announce court sessions, fires and important news. Now we have the Internet, and can connect to our local government at will. Does the Internet really make local government more transparent and accountable? A good site does both.

I've rated Lehigh Valley local government websites, starting with those in Lehigh County. I've tried to keep it objective. Here's how it works. Any local government with a website gets a point. Additional points are awarded for meeting agendas, minutes, online newsletters, calendars and email contacts (to elected officials only). If the local government includes other items designed to inform its citizens or make government more transparent, more points are awarded.

Almost no municipality provides an email address for its elected officials. But there's been a terrific effort to bring government closer to the people. Emmaus features webcasts of its borough council meetings, and Allentown permits you to pay your bills online.

Here's how it breaks down in Lehigh County.

Emmaus, scoring 8, leads the pack.

Allentown, with 7 points, is breathing down Emmaus' neck.

There's a bottleneck for third place. Alburtis, Hanover, Lower Milford, South Whitehall and Upper Saucon each earn 6 points.

Catasauqua, Fountain Hill, and Macungie, proud boroughs all, earn a respectable 5 points.

Lehigh County and Bethlehem, both of whom have young and supposedly progressive leaders at their helm, earn a disappointing 4 points. Lower Macungie and Weisenberg were able to match that.

Coopersburg and North Whitehall, neither of whom can be bothered to post minutes or agendas, get a lousy 3 points.

Coplay, Salisbury, Upper Macungie and Upper Milford get 2 points for showing up. Their webpages are little more than a mailing address.

Heidelberg, Lowhill, Lynn, Slatington, Washington and Whitehall must still use a bell. They get 0 points.
Here's the data I complied to arrive at these results. If my math is wrong, mea culpa.

Lehigh County: Score - 4.
Minutes? No.
Agendas? Yes.
Email contacts? Yes (for commissioners).
Online newsletter? No.
Online calendar? Yes, It tells us about street festivals and concerts, but fails to list commissioners' meetings.

Allentown City: Score - 7.
Minutes? Yes.
Agendas? Yes.
Email contacts? No.
Online newsletter? Yes, on the home page under "What's news?"
Online calendar? Yes, but it fails to list meeting dates.
Special notes: Allentown's webpage includes a "lost and found" section, a section for paying bills online and a link for kids.

Alburtis Borough: Score - 6.
Minutes? Yes.
Agendas? Yes.
Email contacts? Yes, one address for borough.
Online newsletter? Yes.
Online calendar? Yes.

Bethlehem City: Score - 4.
Minutes? Yes.
Agendas? Yes.
Email contacts? No.
Online newsletter? No.
Online calendar? Yes, but it fails to list any public meetings.

Catasauqua Borough: Score - 5.
Minutes? Yes.
Agendas? Yes.
Email contacts? No.
Online newsletter? No.
Online calendar? Yes.
Special notes: Catasauqua's online codebook is a nice feature. Pending legislation is also linked.

Coopersburg Borough: Score - 3.
Minutes? No.
Agendas? No.
Email contacts? None.
Online newsletter? Yes.
Calendar? Yes, but it fails to list the time or place of its meetings, so it's worthless.

Coplay Borough: Score - 2.
Minutes? No.
Agendas? No.
Email contacts? No.
Calendar? Yes.
Online newsletter? No.

Emmaus Borough: Score - 8.
Minutes? Yes. (An extensive list).
Agendas? Yes.
Email contacts? None.
Calendar? Detailed.
Online newsletter? Yes.
Special notes: Emmaus contains webcasts of its most recent council meeting. Its home page has both an announcements features and lists the next scheduled public meeting prominently.

Fountain Hill Borough: Score - 5.
Minutes? Yes.
Agendas? Yes.
Email contacts? No.
Calendar? Yes, a meeting schedule.
Online newsletter? Yes.

Hanover Township (Lehigh County): Score - 6.
Minutes? Yes.
Agendas? Yes.
Email contacts? No.
Calendar? No.
Online newsletter? Yes.
Special notes: There are links to Hanover's code of ordinances and the state building code. Minutes are also included for the planning and recreation commission and "special" council.

Heidelberg Township: No webpage. Score - 0.

Lower Macungie Township: Score -4.
Minutes? Yes.
Agendas? Yes.
Email contacts? No.
Calendar? Yes.
Online newsletter? Yes.
Special notes: The site still lists Pat Toomey as our area congressman and Charlie Dent as a state senator, so it loses a point.

Lower Milford Township: Score - 6.
Minutes? Yes.
Agendas? Yes.
Email contacts? No.
Calendar? Yes.
Online newsletter? Yes.
Special notes: The home page has a news ticker for recent announcements. A listing of township ordinances is provided, but the ordinances themselves are unavailable. Agendas for the planning commission are also available.

Lowhill Township: No webpage. Score - 0.

Lynn Township: No webpage. Score - 0.

Macungie Borough: Score -5.
Minutes? Yes.
Agendas? No.
Email contacts? No.
Calendar? No.
Online newsletter? Yes.
Special notes: Macungie also maintains minutes for its zoning hearing board and borough authority, has a news ticker for announcements on its homepage, and contains links to its trail plan and a plan for southwestern Lehigh County.

North Whitehall Township: Score -3.
Minutes? No.
Agendas? No.
Email contacts? No.
Calendar? Yes.
Online newsletter? Yes.

Salisbury Township: Score - 2.
Minutes? No.
Agendas? No. Only most recent.
Email contacts? No.
Calendar? No. The webpage is set up for a calendar, but no one has taken the time to enter any events.
Online newsletter? Yes.

Slatington Borough: No webpage. Score -0.

South Whitehall Township: Score - 6.
Minutes? Yes.
Agendas? Yes.
Email contacts? No.
Calendar? Yes.
Online newsletter? Yes.
Special notes: The webpage includes agendas and minutes for all boards and commissions.

Upper Macungie Township: Score -2.
Minutes? No.
Agendas? No.
Email contacts? No.
Calendar? No.
Online newsletter? Yes.
Special notes: Although a half-hearted effort is made to post some minutes from April and May, that's it. And only one agenda is posted, from a meeting in May.

Upper Milford Township: Score - 2.
Minutes? No.
Agendas? No.
Email contacts? No.
Calendar? No.
Online newsletter? Yes.

Upper Saucon Township: Score -6.
Minutes? Yes.
Agendas? Yes.
Email contacts? No.
Calendar? Yes.
Online newsletter? Yes.
Special notes: Proposed ordinances are posted, and it appears that all ordinances will eventually be posted.

Washington Township: No webpage. Score - 0.

Weisenberg Township: Score - 4.
Minutes? No. There are minutes for only one meeting.
Agendas? No.
Email contacts? Yes.
Calendar? Yes, but no public meetings are included.
Online newsletter? Yes.
Special notes: The site contains a news ticker and a special section for its environmental advisory council.

Whitehall Township: No webpage. Score - 0.
Correction: Lynn Township does have a webpage. My thanks to David C. for making me aware of my error. Here's the lowdown: Minutes? Yes. Agendas? No. Email contacts? No. Online newsletter? No. Calendar? No. So like Coplay, Salisbury, Upper Macungie and Upper Milford, Lynn gets 2 points for showing up.

21 comments:

J. SPIKE ROGAN said...

Slatington no web site? I would have thought the home town of "The Shack" would have been on the cutting edge of our modern soceity!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Six municipalities in LC have no web page. If their argument is they're too small for that fancy stuff, it's time they merge with another nearby municipality.

Both the county and Bethlehem have pretty lousy scores, too. The "young turks," as Callahan and Cunninghman refer to themselves don't seem to like the net.

Anonymous said...

"supposedly progressive" generally implies a politician's political leanings, not their technological literacy. one can be a progressive political leader and still be a luddite.

and i have never heard cunningham or callahan refer to themselves as "young turks".

Bernie O'Hare said...

Agreed, but I didn't call them geeks. A young progressive would encourage a transparent website that informs the reader. I read that Callahan and Cunningham refer to themselves as the "young turks." I believe that was in a MC article about the city council race. I've checked, and that's how Bill White refers to them in a 5/31/03 column. But if I am wrong, I humbly apologize.

It's not a big criticism. They both could and should do much better. Look at Allentown.

LVDem said...

can't wait to see Norco's.

The best way to get info on local gov't is still to go to the council meetings, get a copy of the agenda and the minutes and to listen/discuss. It's unfiltered and real time. And you get a better appreciation of the people involved.

David C. said...

Hey, Lynn should get at least a point for having a website, www.lynntwp.org, and yes, the meeting minutes are there, but in a disorganized way perhaps.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Sorry Dave.

I could not find Lynn, but I will update my post with a correction. I appreciate your comment.

Anonymous said...

Lehigh County does list the BOC meetings:

http://www.lehighcounty.org/commish/comm.cfm?doc=elect_comm2.htm

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 11:40,

It should probably include them in its calendar of events. That would be an improvement, and would be similar to what many other municipalities are doing. I'm going thru the NC municipalities now. They're a lot worse than LC.

RadCenter said...

Bethlehem recently redesigned its Web site. I used to find a lot more on there than I do now. It's turned into nothing more than an extension of the Chamber of Commerce PR site.

Example: There used to be a map on there that showed a breakdown of per capita income for the different neighborhoods in the city. This was part of a redevelopment project for the west side and northeast that is also no longer mentioned on the site. To attract further development in the wake of the BethWorks project, the leadership in Bethlehem is doing its best to portrary the city as a mythical Lake Wobegon: "Where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."

I'll always be a Bethlehem girl at heart, but I'm glad to be living in Emmaus right now.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Rad,

Thanks for your insight. Wow! Bethlehem is actually downgrading its webpage? That's very disturbing to me.

I'm planning two more posts on this topic. I'm about halfway thru NC webpages, and Emmaus is still clearly in the lead.

Once I wrap up NC, I'll have a LV ranking, and will mention your comments about Bethlehem. In fact, I'll ask Bethlehem to explain.

J. SPIKE ROGAN said...

I suspect cenk Ugyar at Air America should sue them for the use of "The Young Turks" since his radio show has been had that name for over 5 years both on Sirius and AAR.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Spike, Actually, the etymology of that expression is a bit older than Air America. You can read about it here>

J. SPIKE ROGAN said...

yeah I know reveloutionaries and all.

Ugar admits he stole the idea.

I suspect those two rocket scientist put on Sirius one night and said "Hey thats us!"

Anonymous said...

I'm very disapointed in most local government websites and have been for quite some time. This Internet as we know it, early on was and still is the most powerful information tool to date (yes Bernie, it knows more than you), yet the available information is difficult to access due to, in my opinion, the lack of forward thinking of most government employees. They simply don't want the citizens/taxpayers to get the information because they still see the technology as a threat to their 8-4:30 jobs.
All building permit applications, license fee's, tax/water/sewer bills etc should be able to pay online 24/7. It is so lame to have to go in and pay/access during their business hours. I can buy a product via the web from anywhere in the world yet I have to go pay my $5.00 parking ticket in person, why?
Do you realize how many positions could be consolidated and make available more fire/police/ems, real jobs etc.
The counties need to take charge by providing a set of standards that each municipality follows with regards to available information. We all have to go to our local offices for the same information, why have 52 separate system servers? Why have 52 IT directors?
The saying is "Same shit, different day".

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon,

Those are all very good points. The IT director at NC called me today and he's interested in exactly what you're doing - providing constructive criticism on making this system better. If you think of anything else, please post it.

Believe it or not, the LC sites are probably better than the NC sites. Wow! What a mess! Especially in the small boroughs!
I'll be posting about that soon. Then I want to compare the two counties wqith that point system and make recommendations. So you help and insight is appreciated, and I appreciated what Rad had to dsay earlier today. Still have not heard back from bethlehem.

Anonymous said...

The most important things make government more transparent. If a municipal site has a calendar and does not list meetings, council, zoning, planning etc, it is not taking advantage of the sunshine the net can provide. Even better are agendas, meeting minutes and best of all audio of the meetings, the next best thing to being there. The site in Easton was only fluff, so other blogs stepped in and filled the gap, now they have caught up a bit. We also need to know when and where the shadow governments meet. LVEDC and GEDP. Those boards need to get a tan and move out into the sunshine

Anonymous said...

Well you can choose to not give Lehigh County a point for not having its newsletter online... but the fact is they aren't hiding anything from you... they don't currently have one.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 11:02,

It might be a bit unfair to judge LC by the same standards as the municipalities. And no, LC is not hiding anything. I tried to come up w/ an objective checklist for website features. The facts are what they are.

I'm working on a similar post for NC and then I'll compare both counties.

Unknown said...

Bernie, great idea for a post. Thanks for taking the time to do the research.

Coopersburg has been doing a lot of work on our web site. Hopefully, we'll get higher marks next time around.

In the mean time, I'd like to offer an update of our current content:

Coopersburg Borough:
Minutes? Yes.
Agendas? Yes.
Email contacts? 1/7. (Individual's preference)
Online newsletter? Yes.
Online calendar? Yes (with times and locations for meetings).
Special notes: Borough news, consolidated list of public notices, and commonly-requested forms. And, more to come!

Thanks again for the constructive criticism.

Bernie O'Hare said...

David,

Thanks very much for the kind words. And also thanks for updating me re Coopersburg.
Based on the info you're giving me, Coopersburg might be getting six points. In the next few weeks, I'll be putting my ratings for both counties together. I'll be checking you out and you'll probably be doing very well in the LV, which is even better for the citizens you serve. So thanks.