Want to read the minutes of a recent Red Bank Council meeting online?
You’ll have to wait. The latest one posted on the borough’s website is from February 12, even though the council has had four meetings since then.
There are even more cobwebs on the Tinton Falls site. That borough hasn’t posted updated council minutes since October.
But those two sites are far from the creakiest out there; in fact, they’re actually quite advanced in some respects. Many municipalities the length of New Jersey post little or no information about the workings of local government. Dog-license applications via the web? Sounds like sci-fi. Budgets online? Forget it.
More than a decade after the the first web browser transformed the Internet into a tool anyone could use, local governments have yet to utilize the web as the virtual clerk’s counter that it could be, says Michael Skudera. So he wants to show them how, and give them a shove if they balk.
Skudera is a 30-year-old self-employed software consultant who grew up in Oceanport and is now almost halfway through his first, four-year term as a Tinton Falls councilman.
He’s also just completed what he believes is the only comprehensive review of municipal websites in New Jersey, looking to see what’s there, what shape it’s in, and what’s missing.
He took on the task, he says, to fulfill a campaign pledge to find ways to let more sunshine into the workings of government while at the same time reducing administrative costs. Improving websites does both, he says.
Offering dog licenses online, for example, saves on the clerical time spent transferring data from handwritten forms to databases.
Skudera’s online tour took him to about 175 town sites, and it was not encouraging. Routine forms that might have been provided online weren’t, let alone more complex documents such as budgets and development plans. Paying your taxes online was almost out of the question.
“I noticed that not very much was posted on the average site, if there was anything posted at all,” he says.
Add to that what almost any civic-minded web user has encountered: sites cluttered with outdated phone numbers and calendars. Sites that have what’s needed, but make it nearly impossible to find. Site-specific search engines that can’t find info right under their noses.
Only a couple of the sites seem to be using the web fully and effectively, Skudera says.
Foremost among them is Freehold Township’s, an award-winning site that is easy to navigate and rich with the kind of information that residents and others want, offering more than 200 commonly-used forms. “It has lots of useful links, and all the core things are there,” Skudera says.
Another is Edison Township’s portal, which has a planning and zoning “application tracker” that Skudera likes (though when we tried it this week, it led us to a dead end). Skudera also gives high marks to Washington Township in Gloucester County and the Township of Wayne for their sites.
Other sites had one or two features worth noting. For example, Skudera calls out Red Bank’s page of forms, permits and license applications available in both Word and PDF formats. That’s a convenient choice for readers who don’t have an Adobe reader loaded into their programs.
It should be noted here that Red Bank is in the process of overhauling its site, with the goal of offering a whole raft of new services, including online tax-payment. Stay tuned.
What’s prevented the sites from entering the 21st century? Generally, it’s been a matter of mindset. “I’m not sure if the awareness was there (in municipal governments) about how important this is,” Skudera says. Then there’s the lack of incentive: “If you don’t have to do this, you’re not going to.”
There are also practical considerations. Many sites, including Tinton Falls’, were developed as ‘custom’ jobs, meaning they can only be updated by someone who knows programming code. If the webmaster is unavailable, or isn’t given the data that needs updating, the site remains static. But there are now a number of vendors providing content management systems templates that can be given a custom appearance that overcome these limitations.
“There’s no site development involved and they allow departments to update on the fly,” Skudera says.
Armed with the 63-page study he compiled, Skudera is now pushing hard for improvement on two fronts. First, he’s asking his fellow councilmembers to adopt an ordinance that would put some standards in place regarding what should be posted and when. [Download tinton_falls_website_proposal.pdf]
For starters, the site must be updatable by anyone who is authorized. Then there’s the basic info he thinks should be posted: budgets and audits; public notices; permits and licenses; comprehensive information about planning and zoning applications; the master plan; calendars; water quality reports; borough job openings and more.
Second, he’s lobbying to get those standards folded into the state Open Public Records Act, which mandates public access to most government documents. Skudera has rounded up legislative support in Trenton for a yet-to-be introduced bill to mandate that the state’s cities and towns maintain websites they’re not required at the moment and that they contain certain basic information that is routinely updated. He also wants the state to pony up some cash to towns to help offset their costs.
“I’m not asking for complex things,” he says. “This is the most basic information that you would find on bulletin boards at borough hall.”
Don’t be put off by the heft of Skudera’s report. Most of it is devoted to screen grabs of pages with features Skudera thinks should be emulated. He also includes copies of ordinances from Hoboken and Manchester Township that have served as loose models for his own proposals.