Detroit Free Press
Sunday, June 6, 2010
Wayne lags in use of Web, access to records
Macomb, Oakland county residents pay bills, get data online
By KATHLEEN GRAY
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Wayne County officials talk a good game about transparency in government, headlining the issue on the county’s home page and offering a few services online.
But, compared with metro Detroit’s other two big counties — Oakland and Macomb — Wayne lags well behind in offering easy access to services and information.
A prime example is Freedom of Information Act requests.
The same recent Free Press requests for delinquent property tax data from the Treasurer’s offices in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties came back with very different results.
Macomb wanted $60 for its time and trouble.
Oakland turned over the information for free.
Wayne County wanted $91,058.
In another example, the Free Press sent identical requests earlier this year for salary information to Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, and the cities of Detroit, Southfield, Livonia and Warren. Governments have five business days to respond to a FOIA request and can ask for another 10 business days to fill the request.
All but Wayne County got the information back to the Free Press in two to nine business days. It took Wayne officials seven weeks to say they had compiled the information and another week to make it available to the Free Press.
Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano said the county is inundated with FOIA requests at a time when there are fewer employees to compile information.
That’s no excuse, said Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which advocates for more open and accessible government.
“Their actions constitute a willful defiance of transparency,” he said.
Basic access in place
All three counties offer budget information, birth and death certificates, property records and the ability to search for inmates in the county jails on their Web sites. But that’s where the similarities end.
Oakland and Macomb post quarterly or even monthly financial reports, campaign finance reports, the agendas and minutes of county commission meetings and court records online. Macomb has even posted the salary ranges for all of its 2,796 employees.
In Oakland, residents can pay for traffic tickets and property taxes online, get automatic updates via e-mail or cell phones about events in the county and check the status of their job applications, concealed weapons permit applications and court filings.
Macomb scores high on many online services, but what really sets the county apart is how it pampers those called for jury duty — a civic duty most people rue.
But Macomb Circuit Court jurors can take advantage of free wireless Internet in the courthouse, get a pager so they can walk, shop and eat in downtown Mt. Clemens until they’re called for duty and even order ahead of their jury duty a library book online through the clerk’s office and have it waiting for them when they arrive.
Macomb an early adapter
The drive for advanced technology began in the mid’90s in Macomb County. By 2000, Oakland County joined the boom, creating a unified site for all departments in county government.
It started out small — allowing residents to apply for a birth or death certificate online, saving residents the drive to the county seats in Mt. Clemens or Pontiac.
Now, Macomb County board meetings are livestreamed on the county’s Web site and available for podcast. Oakland began a trial run of televising its meetings in May. Oakland and Macomb post campaign finance reports for elected officials and candidates for office on their Web sites. In Macomb, Clerk Carmella Sabaugh also has what she calls “the Naughty List”— candidates who are late in filing their reports. It includes what they owe in fines to the county.
“For me, it’s always been, ‘How do we make services better for the public?’ ” Sabaugh said. “If I just kept the status quo, we might as well just have a bureaucrat in this seat.”
Sabaugh has led the way in Macomb, offering the unusual, like perks for jurors, and the essential, like a chat line that allows residents to ask any question of the clerk’s office and get an almost immediate response.
Oakland County offers 43 online services, from ordering a pet license to filing court documents. The move has saved trips to the courthouse for lawyers, as well as an estimated 400,000 pieces of paper.
“There’s a fundamental shift now,” said Phil Bertolini, the county’s chief information officer. “Seniors are not as willing to do transactions online, and younger people don’t want to do anything other than online.”
Infrastructure upgrades not free
The advances are not free. Oakland County’s most expensive upgrade cost $820,023 and allows police officers to write tickets, upload the violations to the court system and give the driver the opportunity to pay the ticket online. Other costs have been minimal.
The county worked with a private contractor in 2007 to install the court filing system, and instead of paying the vendor $250,000, the vendor collected the e-filing convenience fees until the amount was paid off last year. The county’s onetime cost was $97,000 to integrate the two systems.
The online services also have allowed both counties to trim workforces. The Oakland County Clerk’s Office is down 30 employees since 2005. In Macomb, there are 223 fewer employees in all departments over the last four years. Budget problems have contributed to those losses.
“But certainly, technology has made us more efficient,” said Paul Gieleghem, chairman of the Macomb County Board of Commissioners.
Resistance to technology
That’s part of the problem in Wayne County, where elected officials are territorial about their employees, said Ficano.
“We’re trying to push the courts and the clerk to do more, but they’re independent elected officials,” Ficano said. “And the conflict we’ve run into is that everyone wants to keep to the same staffing levels.”
Wayne County Deputy Clerk Caven West said money concerns have prevented the office from upgrading technology, although there are plans to make campaign finance reports available online next year.
Wayne County Commissioner Laura Cox, R-Livonia, has been nudging the county to become more transparent. She has had limited success.
“It’s like pushing a huge wheelbarrow full of rocks up a very large hill,” she said. “We don’t need a Cadillac system. … Right now, we’re on a bicycle.”
Cox posts her monthly expenses online, something only one other commissioner — Joan Gebhardt, D-Livonia — does.
Tahir Kazmi, director of the county’s Information Technology Department, said he has spent the last three years upgrading technology infrastructure.
“You couldn’t even find a projector in the county three years ago,” he said. “Our system was constantly crashing.” While the infrastructure is stabilized and internal systems are up and running, service still lags, Kazmi acknowledged.
He said he is stymied by other elected officials who don’t want to use the technology that’s made available to them and hampered by lack of money to complete some projects.
But he has a schedule. An electronic medical record system is ready for testing and a better, more user-friendly Web site is set to debut next month. More online services should be ready for Wayne County residents in eight to 12 months.
“We can’t just put solutions out there with a magic wand,” Kazmi said.
CONTACT KATHLEEN GRAY: 313-223-4407 OR KGRAY99@FREEPRESS.CO