IF YOU NEED to see something to bolster the notion that government can sometimes do things right, consider going online to visit the “Luzerne County Manager” link at luzernecounty.org.
As noted in a Saturday story in The Times Leader, one of the fundamental problems with the new elected council/appointed manager form of government is that said manager -- currently Robert Lawton -- can conduct a great deal of business out of the public eye.
Under the new government charter approved by voters in 2010 and implemented at the start of last year, many actions that previously required a public vote by the three county commissioners under the old form of government now rest in the hands of the appointed manager. The idea was simple: Take such decisions out of the hands of politicians and put them in the domain of a professional manager.
While this made some sense, it means the public does not see elected officials voting on many contracts and personnel actions, which in turn means such actions could get buried in the managers office. To Lawton’s credit -- and to the credit of the 11-member council -- that has not happened.
Lawton has begun using the county’s website to post a wide array of information. Want to read contracts he approveed? They are a few mouse clicks away. Want to know who was hired, promoted, moved to a new position, got laid off, resigned or retired? It’s all there.
You can even dive into the arcane world of “budget transfers,” the common yet obscure practice of shifting money from one budget area to another. Lawton has posted the budget transfer requests, including an explanation of the reason.
While much of this was technically public under the old three-commissioner systerm because it had to be voted on at a public meeting, it was often unexplained and rarely, if ever, accessible outside those meetings or outside the courthouse. Quite the contrary, it routinely seemed like county commissioners and other officials -- with a few exceptions -- had to be dragged reluctantly into the Internet age.
Lawton’s efforts are not perfect. The information is not always posted as quickly as one would like, and some data would be better presented in different formats (spreadsheets would be handy for files wiht many columns of numbers).
But the effort is commendable, and council should encourage such web access throughout the courthouse. Municipalities and school districts that don’t already post copious information on line should emulate Lawton’s efforts. Considering how heavily tarnished the county was in the federal corruption probe, it is well past time the county became a leader in transparency.
For too long, area politicians have cloaked themselves behind the claim that “it was voted on at a public meeting,” without making the “it” readily available to the public through the web.
True accountability requires more than public meetings. It requires public access.