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State bill requires municipalities to maintain their websites

Legislation introduced recently in the state Senate would make it state law for municipalities to maintain websites.

S.4908, sponsored by Sen. James Skoufis, D-Newburgh, would amend the state’s General Municipal Law by adding a new article titled “Municipal Websites.”

The legislation will require municipalities to maintain a website that is accessible to the public and provides important information to residents. Websites must contain basic information, financial reports, meeting and election notices, meeting agendas and minutes, and an updated version of local code or laws.

Skoufis’ legislation references a 2014 Empire Center highlighted the poor quality of municipal websites many of which lacked basic information. The report found that less than 20% of local governments received a passing grade on their website’s availability of information and usability including two municipalities that did not have a website. Some of those websites have improved over the past five years, including Jamestown’s, which received an “F” rating in 2014. The updated city website includes all of the information Skoufis’ legislation would mandate.

“This report’s findings are troubling,” Skoufis said in his legislative justification.

“In 2019, there is no excuse for a municipality not to have a website that is updated regularly and provides citizens with basic information about the operations of their local government.”

Skoufis’ legislation, which was also introduced in the state Assembly and was also introduced in the 2015-16 and 2017-18 legislative session,

A review of area websites showed that most Chautauqua County municipalities have websites, but many don’t have the type of information that Skoufis is requesting they have. Only two municipalities don’t have websites at all — Arkwright and Stockton. Chautauqua County, Jamestown, Dunkirk, Lakewood, North Harmony and Mayville have all of the information that Skoufis’ legislation mandates.

Many websites don’t post financial reports or budget summaries while 23 didn’t include a posting of a municipality’s upcoming meeting agenda. Several others posted several categories of information, including zoning code information, but not information about municipal laws and codes.

“The Empire Center undertook this project not to place blame on any individual local government, rather to highlight the need for advancement in how and when data and information is presented on websites,” the 2014 Empire Center report states. “With no real guidance for what makes a good website, the SeeThrough Government Rankings should provide a basis and a benchmark by which local governments can see how websites stack up from one municipality to the next. By implementing changes based on the results of this assessment — most, if not all of which can be achieved at little or no cost — local governments of all sizes can greatly increase the usefulness of their own websites and better connect taxpayers to the range of information to which they are entitled.”

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