Torrance County Commissioner Julia DuCharme got an angry reaction from one elected official when she brought up an audit by the N.M. Foundation for Open Government, or NMFOG last week.
DuCharme said she wanted to open a discussion about the county’s website. “I am a proud member of Foundation for Open Government and I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to look at the county’s website,” she said, asking for opinions on “what works, what doesn’t, what kind of improvements can be made.”
She asked for an overview of the county’s website from Nick Sedillo, who works as chief appraiser but also fills other roles in risk management and tech support. Sedillo said there are three administrators for the website, with he and deputy county manager Annette Ortiz doing most of the maintenance of the site.
Sedillo said currently direction for what is on each page of the county’s site comes from department heads. Changes asked for by department heads are then made by him or by Ortiz. “Like I warn them again, if you want something real elaborate you gotta pay for it—if you want something elaborate bear with me.”
Ortiz added that updating the website is something that she and Sedillo do but “it is something we have added on to our daily duties.” She added, “When the calendar was down comments were made that we were attempting to hide things. We’re trying to keep up as best as we can. Some counties have a whole IT department. There are three of us, but we have other jobs we’re trying to keep up with as well.
Adding features to the website could be as simple as adding a pdf, or as complicated as creation of a new web page, which would require a $75 hourly fee by the site’s webmaster at Lobo Internet, Sedillo said.
He also talked about the site’s vulnerability to hackers, and said that most of the hits the website gets are for the treasurer’s office and the assessor’s office.
The report by NMFOG analyzed websites around the state, using benchmarks for accountability and government transparency. For example, the section titled “Financial,” had a possible 18 total points; FOG ranked Torrance County at 11. Missing from the county website, according to FOG, was check registers showing payments to vendors and financial reports by departments. Showing up on the site, according to the report, is overall budgets and budget analysis; links to audits for the current and past three years; and property and other tax rates.
According to FOG’s report, Torrance County fell short in the “Accountability Data” section, garnering just 2 points out of a possible 17. Missing information from the county website, the report said, included the name, position and salary of every employee and official; database of vendors and their contracts; copies of current contracts; open contracts available for bid, plus bidding rules and requirements; grants or subsidies and campaign finance information.
A section called “Public Meetings” had 23 possible points, of which the report awarded Torrance 15. That’s because schedules, agendas, videos of meetings, along with the informational packet received by the county commissioners, is published online. Missing, according to the report, was “a clear statement of individual rights of access and to speak at public meetings,” and links to relevant state law; minutes posted within 10 days of approval and archived for the past three years. The report notes that the last published minutes on the website are from 2013.
Under “Public Records,” with a possible 21 points, Torrance County was given a score of 10 by the report, which says information that should be on the website but is not includes a clear statement of an individual’s right to records, links to state statute; procedures and policies for accessing public records; information on electronic access to public records (the report notes that “no suggestions on minimizing costs for public records are provided”); frequently requested information; and tracking features for records requests.
Under “Website Functionality,” Torrance County got a score of 7 out of 9 possible, with the report noting that information can be downloaded in a form that is easily searched; the site has a homepage search box; most information can be found with a single click or drop-down menu; and users can comment on the website.
Finally, the report gave Torrance County 5 of 9 possible points for “Frequently Sought Information,” noting that easy access to police crime reports and assessment appeals process are not featured on the website.
While both Sedillo and Ortiz focused on the logistics of updating the website, County Assessor Betty Cabber reacted angrily to DuCharme’s agenda item, and her desire to look at ways to make the county’s website better according to FOG’s guidelines. “Are we going to take the time at this commission meeting to do that?” Cabber asked, suggesting that department heads each take time to review the report then bring them back to a committee to discuss potential changes to the website. “This is the first time I’ve seen it and I didn’t even get it before the meeting.”
DuCharme said she had gotten the information by “reading social media and the newspaper.”
Cabber said that “all this revamping” should be a special meeting, “then have a meeting of the web committee instead of using a commission meeting to discuss all this. … These details need to be worked out internally then bring them to the commission.”
“I disagree with you,” DuCharme said.
Overall, Torrance County got 52 out of a possible 100 points in NMFOG’s analysis. By contrast, Bernalillo County and Santa Fe County both got got a score of 83 on the same report.
Leota started working for The Independent in 2006, working her way up through the ranks. An employee buyout in 2010 led to her ownership of the newspaper. Leota has served on the board of the N.M. Press Association, and is currently its First Vice President. She is passionate about health and wellness, especially mental health, and loves making art. She can be reached at [email protected]