Many Sask. governments still lack websites

Even as COVID-19 demonstrates need to make information available online

A month after the Rural Municipality of Indian Head launched its website, traffic there has been underwhelming.

“Eight visits a week. It’s not a highly-used feature at this point,” said Tracy Luscombe, the RM’s administrator, who launched the site on April 20.

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Communicating with the RM’s 330 residents about 70 kilometres east of Regina still involves physically posting announcements on the door of the RM office.

Luscombe, who has been the administrator for three years, said she figures the website is so new that residents don’t know yet to check there for information.

“We’ve gone 100-and-some years without a website, so people aren’t used to looking there for information,” she said.

Saskatchewan has 775 local governments. Late last year, when the StarPhoenix/Leader-Post examined the transparency of Saskatchewan governments, 429 municipalities — 55 per cent — had websites as of the end of November.

Some municipal leaders and administrators said websites were not needed because there was no demand for them, or they had more efficient ways of disseminating information, including through municipal Facebook pages.

Ray Orb, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM), said it’s been a “struggle” to get information out to ratepayers, given that so many municipal governments lack websites and some don’t have access to high-speed internet.

In some places, going to the RM office is the only way to get information about past and upcoming meetings. That’s become more of an issue since many municipal offices closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Orb said.

“That’s really hurting the perception, at least, that we don’t have good transparency.”

The StarPhoenix/Leader-Post checked in again this spring with communities that did not have a website in November, to see what progress had been made. Eight of the 60 communities that responded to the papers said they had launched websites in the last six months; another six said they were still working on getting sites running.

Many government administrators said they do not need websites because they’re using Facebook to communicate with ratepayers.

Justin Longo, an assistant professor at the University of Regina’s Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and an expert in open government, said the pandemic has reinforced the need for people to be able to see what local governments are doing without leaving their homes.

He said the pandemic — which has forced many people to figure out how to do their jobs remotely — could be an opportunity for governments that have stayed off-line to start doing analog and digital outreach.

Even if website traffic is slow in the beginning, websites are worth building, Longo said; residents will grow accustomed to them once they’re available and use them more over time. Not building websites due to anticipated lack of interest ignores that, he said.

An uptick in usage “doesn’t just magically happen someday,” he said. “The current environment’s a great place to start.”

University of Saskatchewan political studies professor Joe Garcea, who studies local government, said one reason websites may not be used is that they don’t contain information people are looking for.

“You have to develop a website with content that is relevant and meaningful and useful to people,” he said.

He suggested that if government bodies are short of time or money to build useful websites, they should seek support from their municipal association. He also recommends that governing bodies consider how the people they hire are certified and trained in the context of the web-focused 21st century.

“Do you want people with some technical proficiency or computer literacy and web literacy? … Just like typing may be a criteria, why not web development and web maintenance?”

Jennifer Bushby, who lives in the RM of Pleasantdale, about 200 kilometres north of Saskatoon, was among the residents who reached out to The StarPhoenix after reading the paper’s reporting on government transparency. She said she wishes her local government had a website where it posted minutes and other information for free.

The RM’s meetings are not live streamed or recorded, and it can be hard for her to find time to attend meetings in person to see what her elected representatives are doing with her tax dollars, she said.

When she attended a meeting last summer, there were no chairs for observers. Digital copies of minutes are not distributed, and if she wants a physical copy of the minutes she has to pay $30 and collect the documents at the RM office. She’s not sure how minutes could have been collected recently, because the RM office was closed for weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. It opened for in-person business on June 1.

“(A website) would engage the ratepayers more. Better decisions would be made if ratepayers were able to voice concerns and were better informed,” Bushby said.

Under the Saskatchewan Municipalities Act, local governments can charge for public documents, but the fees need to be reasonable. Last month, the Saskatchewan Ombudsman found the RM of Pleasantdale’s fees were “unreasonable and in contravention of The Municipalities Act.”

The ombudsman’s report said fees were implemented in 2017 to discourage residents from asking for copies.

Doing so would save the administrators time, prevent distribution of altered minutes and limit “problematic requests.” The RM only provides physical copies of minutes in order to make it more difficult for citizens to share them with others.

The RM of Pleasantdale administrator declined to comment on whether those fees are still in place or if the RM is exploring the possibility of a website.

In the meantime, Bushby said she doesn’t know what her council is doing with her tax dollars.

“I feel distrust towards my municipality,” she said.

Kim Sippola, administrator of the RM of Terrell, south of Moose Jaw, said the RM had a website for about four or five years, but after the back-end editor quit in 2016 or 2017, “we kind of let the website slide, to be honest. It wasn’t being used much at all anyway,” she said.

Most of the RM’s 241 residents are older and wouldn’t use a website, Sippola said.

“I’m 53 and I’m one of our younger ratepayers. A lot of them just don’t do Internet stuff.”

She said she can get information to residents through her personal Facebook page.

In the RM of Silverwood, east of Regina, administrator Jennalee Beutler said the RM had been using a free website provided by the Agriculture Producers of Saskatchewan. After that service expired a year ago, “we didn’t really see the need to continue it … Mostly between the cost to maintain it and if no one is going to go onto it, then what’s the point?” she said.

There doesn’t appear to be much interest in council proceedings because no one has attended a meeting as a non-delegate in 15 years, Beutler said.

Municipalities of Saskatchewan president Gordon Barnhart said its members are doing their best “within the limits of their electronics in terms of making sure they have Wi-Fi and that sort of thing, that (directives and decisions) are communicated to the public as best as possible.”

The provincial government said last year it was in the process of developing an online portal on the website that could house some municipal government documents, potentially saving some municipalities from having to create and maintain their own websites.

The portal could be operational as early as 2021; at first, it would only host municipalities’ public accounts, but it could be expanded to house other public documents.

Barnhart described developing such a system as “a massive project,” saying he hadn’t heard any updates on it.

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