WHEELING - A nonprofit group advocating for transparency in government issued poor marks nearly across the board in a review of 21 state, local and county websites in West Virginia.
The city of Wheeling's website received a "D" grade from the Sunshine Review, which last week released evaluations for the Mountain State's five largest cities, five largest counties and 10 largest public school systems. That was the highest mark given to a West Virginia city along with Morgantown, which also received a "D" - Charleston got a "D-," while Parkersburg and Huntington each received failing grades.
The websites were graded according to several criteria, including the availability of budget documents, notices and agendas for public meetings, contact information for both elected and administrative officials, information on taxes and and permit applications. The Sunshine Review has evaluated 31 states so far this year.
Wheeling's website, reviewed on May 27, received praise for its posting of the current year's budget and meeting dates and agendas, and availability of contact information for city officials, including phone numbers and email addresses. Other positives noted were the availability of building permit applications and zoning information, as well as Wheeling's current Business and Occupation Tax rates.
But the review criticized the city for a lack of available information on audits, the city's public records policy and bids or contracts over $10,000.
Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie said he is aware of the Sunshine Review's report, but he didn't want to comment on any of its specific criticisms due to a lack of familiarity with the organization.
"I don't know who they are, what they do, what rules they've used. ... It's hard to respond when you don't know anything about the company" that performed the review, he said.
McKenzie questioned the wisdom of applying the same evaluation criteria around the country, when laws can vary from state to state. But he said the city does plan to take a closer look at the report over the next few weeks and assess whether changes need to be made.
"We want to make sure we have a very progressive website that enables businesses ... to conduct business with the city through our website," said McKenzie. "Anytime we can improve it, we're very eager to do that. ... We are always eager to make our website the best."
No other local entities were included in the review. County websites evaluated included those of Kanawha, Berkeley, Cabell, Monongalia and Wood counties, all of which received an "F" except for Berkeley, which received a "D-."
School district websites were graded in Kanawha, Wood, Berkeley, Cabell, Raleigh, Harrison, Monongalia, Mercer, Putnam and Marion counties. All received failing grades except Marion, which got a "D."
West Virginia's overall state website received an "A-" and was criticized only for a lack of information on taxpayer-funded lobbying.
"Of the 31 states analyzed thus far for 2012, West Virginia is hands down the worst," said Sunshine Review President Michael Barnhart. "Their county and school websites are appalling and lack the basic information that taxpayers deserve to know."
The Sunshine Review describes itself as a "wiki-format website that anyone can edit by clicking on the 'edit' link that appears in the horizontal menu bar across the top of every article."
"Once you register on the site, you are considered an editor and a member of the Sunshine Review Community," the website states.