The Mayor of Alsip was recently held up to (slight) public scrutiny over what modifications (if any) need to be made to the current Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws here in Illinois.

Mayor Patrick Kitching comes across in this Chicago Tribune article “Clout St: Illinois open records laws under scrutiny” as a victim of a vicious political assault via the prescribed FOIA request process and the proposed “Kitching Bill” would curb such outrageous trends in the State of Illinois by using words such as “vexatious” to vilify a citizen if they breach the previously prescribed count.

According to the article, it was on Mayor Kitching’s watch that former Alsip Police Chief chose to defy the 50 requests per day limit by submitting a 90 Request Protest (90 FOIA requests in one day).  The topic of the requests?  Municipal codes and board meeting minutes.  The timing?  Apparently during election season because the former police chief is now Trustee Richard Dalzell (a trend for south/southwest suburb police chiefs to hop on over to the board side of life?) and at first glance, the municipal code book and board meeting minutes do seem to be quite readily available online.

However, the surface of a web page may not reflect other issues that might be present due to the coding behind the page presentation.  In fact, the current structure wrecks havoc on popular search engine indexes and yes, prevents the ability to create an effective app for Alsip board meeting minutes (assuming someone out there would want to take on such a task)…let alone all of the other issues attached with reviewing the Alsip Municipal Code Collection and their Board Meeting minutes, including the absence of a search portal on the website, let alone the inability to search otherwise-searchable Adobde .pdf files without downloading a piece of the collection if not the entire collection itself.

With codifying companies defying FOIA fee boundaries by charging sometimes hundreds of dollars for a digital copy of a municipal code book already in digital format online – in some cases, the document si separated by a proprietary template that inhibits ability to manipulate the data whatsoever, unless you were to copy/paste each individual page into a word processing software – almost as if there was a glass case surrounding the document with an alarm system attached should anyone attempt to touch the book in its entirely – let alone have the ability to thumb through at will – and for free (that’s what libraries are for) – with codifying companies creating decoding software for sale to provide a unique search feature that shouldn’t need to be installed into the usage of the document to begin with.

While other municipalities are forced to comply with pre-established FOIA fees in which the first 50 pages are free, the cost of photocopying a municipal code book is less than $10.00, $20.00 at best for machine wear and tear.  This demonstration sets forth demonstration as to why the Village of Alsip website under the Kitching administration is not something other municipalities should be modeling their practices after…and here’s why.

Misleading Information Demonstration
Municipal Code Book Section

 

In this screen snapshot taken Saturday, June 25, 2011, there are three misleading statements contained within the content:

1.  On further review at the Municode Corporation website, October 2010 was the last time the municipal code book was updated online.  The presence of 2005 (unless some sort of internal codification process that assigns numbers that tend to reflect a year is being stated) makes this a quick loss of significant credibility in terms of performing a search on the website, the added detraction of 8 months having passed since the last update, the string “online librarys” (misspelled) serves no anchor purpose other than acting as keywords in which Municode Corporation does not present a municipal code book as a “library,” because it’s not.  It’s a book of ordinances.  It’s one book of laws.

2.  The absence of a space between the “ordinance” and “municode.com” creates a unique string that produces the following results in Google:

Note the Google algorithm attempting to place a space somewhere its data suggests there to be one, which in this circumstance would be the theoretically accurate assumption from an end-users perspective.  Google apparently doesn’t even register the presence of this string despite absence of a “noindex-nofollow” instruction.  What if a user thought it was a company name and that there was no evidence of such a company as Ordinacemunicode?

3.  What isn’t readily noticeable is the actual linking schematics, especially in context with the instructions set forth to “click on the graphic image.” In this link (the underline is not noticeable until after someone mouses over the text), the link leads to product id 14055.  Same as this link to the word “librarys.”

 

But look what happens when a user mouses over the word “online” – an entirely different hyperlink is offered:

As to what link is attached to the graphic referenced in the statement “click on the graphic image to view”?

Turns out that both links lead in the direction of the Alsip municipal code book, but the 14055 coding lands a visitor directly onto the start of the municipal code book structure dedicated to Alsip.  The other code, 10199, lands a visitor onto a miniature switchboard page that offers links to the municipal code book itself, a mobile version, and a screen-wide bar offering to sell a copy of the book.  Perhaps for some form of traffic tracking purposes, but the links themselves aren’t even obvious links set off my either color and/or underline, let alone the fuzziness of italics in a hyperlink circumstance.

Ultimately, these two variances in links provide reason to doubt which, if any, will lead to the municipal code book for Alsip, Illinois as prescribed in the contract between Municode Corporation and the Village of Alsip, as well as producing questions such why the one word “online” was intentionally separated out and hyperlinked for starters.

Misleading Information Demonstration
Board Meeting Minutes Section

At first glance at the board meeting minutes page of the Village of Alsip website, there is room for immediate doubt in the sincerity of Kitching being the “victim” when a visitor can see the following before ever scrolling downward:

If a user does not scroll down, the hyperlinks in the upper right corner suggest a 4 year gap in minutes available for download.  No click track can trace the number of people who have adopted such a perception and such a perception gap can be eliminated by either deleting the hyperlink list entirely and telling visitors to scroll…or they can build out the menu to include 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Now, the whole scrolling part to the single page listing what appears at first glance to be a hyperlinked list of all board meeting minutes available in .pdf format.

Before I get into aggregation connection failures in the file naming structure itself, the clumsy nature of the CSS template being used to house the data presents to an end-user in itself is trouble.  From a fixed two-column structure all the way to the content being centered in the columns its in the headers that keyword suggest the presence of an agenda or two mixed in with the minutes.

On the surface, each years header implies that there are both agendas and minutes contained in the collection.  However, a review of the entire collection uses terms such as “special,” “Wednesday” and also a few committees, such as the appropriations committee to where a visitor now has to wonder, are both documents contained within the same file?  Typically, an agenda is posted prior to a meeting (and sometimes even passed around to audience members) and minutes are a separate document entirely.  And sure enough, there are agendas mixed in with minutes and the date means nothing other than a clicker being delivered either an agenda or minutes.

Now lets go towards the aggregation connection failures direction and the whole linking schematic used for this particular collection.  As I mentioned, it takes a moment or two before one begins to question the content in any manner, but what becomes really curious is their physical file naming strategy.

When a list of all hyperlinks in this page is reviewed (there are quite a few add-ons that will perform this task), it can be seen that at least directory-wise, there is a folder designation for “agenda” and “minutes”:

That consistency is helpful to anyone seeking to aggregate and/or distribute the public documentation from a programming side, and there is even a directory for Committee Meeting Minutes, but it also does zero for the end-user reading only the surface of the page.

Using a find and replace method, an additional directory becomes noticeable that grows from the Committee directory:

See the number 2007 repeated twice?  The first one represents a separate directory, suggesting that all following files will be from the year 2007 as the page suggests on the surface.  This split in naming habit could have a work-around…if it stayed consistent, which it doesn’t:

Oddly enough, the folder by year structure appears to have been implemented in 2007 and yet all other Committee Meeting Minutes were apparently left in their original codified state dating from 2006 back.

Their whole naming system contains a host of problems and issues, as this one sample reflects in which all percent signs were replaced by spaces and then columns were created to contain the separate file name string:

It’s a lot worse than just this for those itching to pull together reliable means and methods to distribute board meeting minutes online.  Not only is the file naming scattered and disconnected, but there are also a series of duplicate links present from mousing over the surface to where it typically takes manual assignment to each string and in the board meeting minutes of 2007, there are multiple entries where the month is separately hyperlinked to the same document the rest of the date is hyperlinked to.

Lastly, the most skewed portion of this particular page is the surface statement that board meeting minutes are available for download for the years of 2004.

A glance at the cascading style sheet attached to the site shows the following data pertaining to the color-coding of hyperlinks throughout the entire site:

To those who are unfamiliar with the color coding scheme for web pages, color 000066 is a dark navy blue and color CC0000 is redish-orange.  Although the redish-orange shading for when someone is “hovering” over a link, it is the use of one of the darkest colors on the color palate to signal there is a hyperlink attached to text.

Now look at this snapshot of the 2004 Board Meeting Minute Collection in which the text circled in red is text with the 000066 color:

The big deal about this lies not only in a poor hyperlink color schematic – especially with the blue watermarks as the backdrop to the text…

Not one of the following board meeting minutes and/or agendas as listed on their website are available for download from their site:

24 Board Meeting Minutes and 24 Committee Meeting Minutes listed as available for download, are not available per site instructions, which makes this particular portion of the Village of Alsip Board Meeting Minutes Collection misleading and entirely false at the time of this site profile report.

That’s 48 clear no-shows and without a manual review of every single document posted online.

Despite Trustee Dalzell clearly crossing a line in protest according to the news article, it is clear that Mayor Kitching is clearly no FOIA hawk in favor of the citizen…or even in favor of government…especially when the State has put a “data portal” online at http://data.illinois.gov that hosts the following statement:

“…a clearinghouse of various data sets in a standard format that is readable by virtually all computer systems.”

Hmmm…not sure such a lofty and honorable objective can be achieved….especially when municipalities such as Alsip implement such obscure file naming habits for public documentation while claiming FOIA laws are costing municipalities too much in time, resources and money, let alone the 48 board meeting minutes stated as “present and accounted for” while beneath the surface there is nothing but “absent and unknown location of documents.

Perhaps developers can succeed in developing applications that aggregate this kind of data more effectively, especially to those who seek to stay connected to the movement of issues, legislation, etc., but unless/until municipalities are motivated to cease broadcasting such uncooperative online-related programming such as with the Alsip demonstration (although I have seen far worse), those already online aren’t going to jump at the chance to change their websites to comply and those who have no online presence will still have no central repository to email such documentation to…

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