Bill Lobdell
Bill Lobdell

[UPDATED: Lobdell Response; Explanation] Costa Mesa Awarded A+ Rating in Transparency: 'Watchdog' Website a Wiki

UPDATE, AUG. 24, 5:15 P.M.: We heard from Bill Lobdell, the man responsible for the efforts to increase Costa Mesa's transparency. He didn't agree with the Weekly's statement that the city "Gives Itself an A+ Grade in Transparency." (You can read his response after the jump.)

The Daily Pilot has also commented on the story, posting a news story response this afternoon regarding reader comments from the piece that was actually the genesis of the Weekly's story. It was the Daily Pilot's Saturday editorial full of high-praise for Costa Mesa's transparency efforts--without any mention of Lobdell or the fact that he's been an editor and columnist with the paper--and a tip from a reader that even got us started into looking at the grade and the group that awarded it, Sunshine Review.

For the sake of clarification of our semantics, no, the city was not able to literally give itself its own grade. There was some level of outside validation. However, Lobdell did handpick an organization that only ensures that the 10 critieria are met and determines the grade based on that simple standard. Certainly, the work done by Lobdell and CEO/City Manager Tom Hatch is substantial, adding most every document and area of interest a resident or member of the media could ask for--especially compared to before their arrival. There is not some rigorous process of submission and a panel of experts assessing the website and coming to a consensus on a deserving grade. 

Lobdell's response:

The city didn't give itself an A+ for transparency. Period. 

Here's how the Sunshine Review works, and it's not a secret. Someone in a government entity or citizen submits on the wiki site the various ways that entity has been transparent with public information on its website. This is what I did. I signed on as myself, in full view of whoever is looking at the information, and listed the City's efforts. 

From there, an editor with the Sunshine Review checks the information and gives the City a grade based on established criteria. Very few A+ grades are given; we were honored to receive it. (By the way, government entities get downgraded if they provide misleading or wrong information, and the wiki can be edited by anyone and is quickly self-correcting so there's no percentage in fudging any facts.) 

To review, by submitting the information, the City - like its counterparts across the country - asked to be graded and was given an A+. 

If that's a news story, then where are the stories about newspaper reporters and editors who make elaborate submissions to the Pulitzer Committee in hopes of getting a Pulitzer Prize? There are none because the journalists aren't giving themselves a Pulitzer Prize; they are asking the judges to consider their work in hopes of getting the award. 

Or why not a story headlined, "OC Weekly gives itself Press Club awards" that says the OC Weekly gave itself Orange County Press Club awards because OC Weekly editors and reporters submitted entries to the judges. 

Please explain to me the difference. And correct the headline and post. And be decent enough to mention that most awards - in journalism (including the ones the OC Weekly rightfully earns), architecture, or at the OC Fair - are given because an interested party submitted an entry. 

The Weekly was able to reach Kristin McMurray, the project manager for Sunshine Review. She explained the process of issuing grades, which are determined by a "10-point transparency checklist." For every critieria a website meets, it receives a point, and much like a scale for grades in your high school math class, corresponding grades are determined. The process is entirely dependent on self-submission.

However, in its own disclaimer, Sunshine Review admits that "nothing found here has necessarily been reviewed by people with the expertise required to provide you with complete, accurate or reliable information." The website has been in existence since 2008 and is run by a woman with a background in public relations. The Pulitzer Prize Awards (which Lobdell cites in his response), however, are determined by a panel of impartial, renowned figures in the industry. 

It appears Lobdell and Costa Mesa are fishing for praise and accolades. That's fine, in most cases. But when a city in a supposed financial crisis is paying its PR guy $3,000 per week, it would seem that there are more important areas of focus than achieving a grade from a non-profit website that has little to no substantive reputation.

The Weekly also heard from Will Swaim, the original editor and publisher of this publication, who launched a blog for his insights on the on-goings in Costa Mesa. Swaim indicated that he was familiar with the Sunshine Review, from all his past work with city governments, and that he did believe it is credible.

ORIGINAL POST, AUG. 24, 12:26 P.M.: You may have read about all of the efforts by the city of Costa Mesa to meet its goal of becoming "the most transparent city in the nation." In March, the city hired Bill Lobdell, a former award-winning journalist, to take the reins as interim communications director and off he went revising the website, creating social media accounts and putting together a weekly CEO Briefing detailing the on-goings in City Hall. 

Though his price-tag is controversial ($3,000/week), his work has been lauded by residents and media alike.

On Aug. 16, Lobdell sent an email announcing that the city's website had received an "A+ transparency grade" from Sunshine Review, a "national watchdog group," for its "quantity and quality of public information."

What Lobdell failed to include in the announcement was that Sunshine Review and its transparency grades lack any actual credibility.

Sunshine Review's website is a Wiki, which means it's a website that allows public editing, much like Wikipedia. 

A quick check of the Revision history for Costa Mesa's page shows that William Lobdell was busy with quite a bit of editing. He made his first edit to the "Costa Mesa, California" page on Aug. 8, 2011, and at that time the city website had an "F." A day after Lobdell was done with his edits, on Aug. 10, the city had an "A+."

The grade came after the user Kristinpedia--who is Kristin McMurrary, the project manager for Sunshine Review--made an entry. Exactly how much time and effort the website puts into being sure that edits are substantiated is unclear. Messages left with Ms. McMurrary were not returned.

While the Weekly believes that Costa Mesa and Lobdell have made commendable strides in reaching its transparency goals, it does not support the manufacturing of praise.

If the city really wants a grade, how about A+ in misleading.



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