How Costa Mesa’s transparency grade improved
In response to concerns raised about the Costa Mesa city website’s recent upgrade from an F to A-plus, the city spokesman said he supplied, and publicly disclosed, his contributions to the graders’ Wikipedia-style website.
Bill Lobdell, however, pointed out that editors of the Sunshine Review, a government transparency advocacy group, came to their own conclusions after reviewing his contributions to the city website — including easier access to Costa Mesa city employee compensations — and then gave it their highest-possible grade.
The Review’s website employs a user-generated format similar to Wikipedia that allows authors to freely update and edit information; however, the site requires the authors enter their names or their IP address.
Lobdell used his name for the edits and, in a follow-up interview this week, said his contributions were accurate and transparent.
“Nothing was manipulated or below board,” Lobdell said. “I signed in as a Costa Mesa person so they’d know exactly who I was … if the info is wrong, this is Costa Mesa. There’ll be plenty of eyes to correct it.”
The Review independently issued the A-plus after it reviewed Lobdell’s entries and compared them with the city website’s new features.
The issue came to light Monday when Daily Pilot online commenters claimed Lobdell submitted the text on the Review’s website. Readers then criticized the Pilot for not reporting the Lobdell-provided entries in a news story and then in an editorial.
According to the Review’s editor, Costa Mesa’s site lives up to the group’s expectations and makes information available in 10 categories, from budget and meeting information to local taxes and public contracts.
“We were able to find all the requirements to meet an A-plus on our checklist,” Kristin McMurray, senior editor for the Review, told the Pilot.
But Costa Mesa’s website still needs better features, such as a searchable database and the ability to submit documents online, Lobdell put on Costa Mesa’s Review page. He also wrote that the page overall is outdated, but that changes are on the way.
From an F to A-plus
Under the history section for Costa Mesa’s page on SunshineReview.org a list of revisions shows that on Aug. 8, Lobdell filled out the city’s online profile in about 30 minutes.
The revision history then shows Lobdell added links to all of the features that would later earn Costa Mesa’s site an A-plus. He also added criticisms about the city site.
“I just think it’s what you need to do,” he said.
Costa Mesa started with an F by default because there was no information on the city webpage before Lobdell’s additions to it.
On Aug. 9, Lobdell added an entry about the city’s breakdown of employee compensation. A minute later, a press release from Lobdell landed in reporters’ inboxes announcing that compensation data was available.
The Pilot had called Review staff that day for a comment about Costa Mesa’s online transparency program, which sparked the Review’s newfound interest, McMurray said.
“We hadn’t looked at them in a long time, so we reevaluated them,” McMurray said.
Review editors checked Costa Mesa’s website and changed the grade.
The Pilot wrote its story based on information in Lobdell’s release, a review of the Review’s website, and interviews with Lobdell and Review staff.
Lobdell’s contributions to the Wikipedia-style site were not referred to in the city’s news release and are not apparent on the Review’s website unless a user clicks on a tab labeled history. A commenter posted the link on the Pilot website that showed where Lobdell contributed.
Lobdell said his additions to Review’s Costa Mesa entry were not in the news release because he thought his name on the entry’s source list was enough disclosure.
But even in light of the disclosure concerns, City Hall watchers seem to agree that the city’s website has been much improved in recent months, but that the city’s press release should have mentioned the wiki contributions.
“The fact that he didn’t disclose it [in the press release] doesn’t change the fact they got an A-plus rating,” said Costa Mesa blogger Geoff West, a frequent City Hall critic who also wrote about the Review’s grade. “It would’ve changed it in the eyes of some people, without fully understanding the process [Lobdell] went through to accomplish that. They might be suspicious of him, suspicion by association [with Costa Mesa politicians].”