Counties ease their way into web technology

Digital tools can be useful in dispensing and accessing government information.

Having an informative, interactive website is important to transparency, according to Sunshine Review, a national nonprofit organization that annually grades state and local governments on their online presence.

North Dakota’s five largest counties scored a cumulative C on the Sunshine Review 10-point checklist for site usability. They included details about budgets, meetings, officials, zoning and taxes but often lacked information on audits, lobbying activities, contracts and how to make public record requests.

Many of the state’s smaller counties have less of a web presence, although the number of North Dakota counties without websites has been dwindling. All but 10 of North Dakota’s 53 counties have websites, according to information from the North Dakota Association of Counties. One of the newest to come online is Pierce County, which launched a website in May 2012.

“We are getting good feedback,” said auditor Karin Fursather, Rugby. The website is not as comprehensive as those of the larger counties but it goes beyond the more limited offerings that many small counties are able to manage.

Money and manpower or lack of it often lie behind the existence or condition of a county’s website.

Mountrail County doesn’t have a website because the oil boom has everyone too busy to develop and maintain one.

“We know we need one,” Auditor Joan Hollekim in Stanley said. “It’s a necessity almost anymore.”

Hollekim said the county does have a third-party website that provides property-tax information, which is the most requested data. Other often requested information also is available elsewhere, such as the county official information that the Association of Counties provides on its website and road restrictions listed on the N.D. Oil & Gas website.

McHenry County does not have a website, although its Job Development Authority does.

Auditor Darlene Carpenter, Towner, said she handles technology issues for the courthouse on top of her other duties and does not have time to take on a county website. So far, the public demand for web information has been low.

“I think if we would get more calls, it might push things that way,” Carpenter said. “The biggest holdback is there hasn’t been anyone to push it along.”

Gayle Jastrzebski, Divide County auditor in Crosby, said her county is looking into developing a website because people are becoming more reliant on the Internet.

“It’s just the first thing you do if you want to find something out,” she said. “We can see where it would be beneficial so we are checking it out.”

Ward County is doing some price investigation, too. The county has out-grown its current web platform and is advertising for proposals from web developers for a new design.

“We need to create a new experience,” said Jason Blowers, Ward County technology coordinator. He said the county desires a more interactive site that ties into social media. He added an update would provide county officials with more tools for offering information, online forms and other services.

Sunshine Review wants to see more information on how to access public records, county lobbying efforts, contract awards and audits to raise Ward County’s score above a C minus.

Seth Hagen, Ward County tax equalization director, said the existing website contains a lot of information, but there could be more, especially map features. If the county commission approves an upgrade, his office will be looking at those new features.

“We going to be finding a way to use it better and get out in front of people and get out in front of situations,” he said.

Dana Larsen, Ward County highway engineer, said an improved platform would allow for more information, but the more information, the more demand for site maintenance. So there’s always that conflict between what you would like to do and what you can afford to do and have time to do, Larsen said.

“If its something we get a lot of requests for, that’s something we would put on the website,” he said. “We haven’t had a lot of requests for additional information.”

Dan Folske, Extension agent in Bowbells, handles much of the management of Burke County’s website, which is maintained by the local Job Development Authority. He said website content is driven by county staff who try to determine what the public wants. There’s been an effort to broaden the information available online, but time and money are hurdles.

“That does hold smaller counties back to a certain extent,” Folske said. “I don’t think most of the small counties feel that they can justify full-time staff for it, and within each county, you have different offices, different departments, that feel differently about how much can be put on the web or how much should be. There’s so many differences of opinion about what a website can be or should be.”

McLean County has had a website for some time, but the amount of information available has been increasing as county officials see more ways to utilize the Internet’s potential. Auditor Les Korgel said it has been important to have information online not only for residents but because of the interest in the area being shown by people from outside the county and outside the state.

Wells County replaced its old website just over a year ago, and officials there are pleased with the new version that gives easier access to more information.

Carrie Krause, who serves as Wells County recorder technology coordinator in Fessenden, said the county was forced to a new platform when its former host went out of business. The county had little choice about finding another host because the public had come to expect the online payment process and access to documents, she said.

Bottineau County Auditor Lisa Herbel, Bottineau, said she can tell by the type and volume of her emails that people are using her county’s website and finding contact information through the site.

“I like the tool because I believe it’s important that people know what’s going on,” she said. “I am hoping we are keeping the county more informed.”