Looking for city or county information online? Here’s some tips on how to navigate local government websites
In my five years covering the City of Great Falls, I’ve heard a lot of questions along the lines of
- “why doesn’t the city post minutes?”
- “where can I find information about X?”
- “the city should broadcast meetings”
- “who’s on X board?”
Recently, I’ve been hearing things like “do you think there would be discussion at a city commission meeting if we showed up and asked for it?” or “why doesn’t the county post audio of their meetings?”
Truth is, the county does post audio of their commission meetings, the city does broadcast commission meetings and all county and city public meetings include time for public comment.
I’ve compiled this list because most of that information is readily available to you with a few keystrokes. This is just a primer and is not meant to be a Magic 8-Ball that will answer every question you’ll ever have, but I’ll post more of these how-tos throughout the year. Got a question about how to find public information from local governments? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I spend a significant amount of time poking around government websites and some are more intuitive than others. The city launched their redesigned website last year and to be honest, it takes me longer to find what I want on the new site and the search function leaves something to be desired, but the information is still there.
Here’s a few basic tips on using the city and county websites to find information.
You can find most things you’re looking for on the city website. It’s www.greatfallsmt.net.
First, use the meetings calendar. All city meetings are posted on the website, generally with agendas and all City Commission meeting packets are posted the Thursday before their meetings. To see the upcoming meetings, just click the calendar button on the homepage.
- Commission packets. The full packet is generally posted the Thursday before the meeting and include the agenda, contracts lists, board applications (if there are any), and staff reports for each agenda item. I use these packets extensively to write preview stories for upcoming meetings. Same goes for planning board and Design Review Board meetings. If you click on a City Commission meeting on the calendar, you can use the PDF version of the packet listed at the top.
Or scroll down and use the agenda system online that lets you click on the video or individual agenda items.
- Minutes. The minutes of just about every city meeting are posted online. I use minutes regularly to go back through and see what was said about an issue, who was opposed and who was supportive.
To get right to a list of meetings to see the available minutes or other info, hover your cursor over the Your Government tab on the home page. The first thing in that menu is Meetings. Click on that and you’ll be able to scroll through the whole list, or search based on the meeting type or a date range.
- Video and/or audio on the city site and you can watch later in case you miss a meeting.
You can also watch City Commission meetings live on the website. From the home page, hover your cursor over the Your Government tab, in the dropdown, Watch Meetings Live is the first option under the City Commission section.
- Board/commission membership. The lists of those on city boards and commissions and their terms are all posted on the city site. In that Your Government tab, click on Boards and Commissions. You’ll be taken to a page with information about all of the city’s boards advisory boards and commissions, as well as current openings on those boards. Once on that page, use the menu on the right hand side and click on Advisory Boards and Commissions for an expanded menu that includes each body. You can then click on whatever board you want to see the ordinance, resolution or state statute creating the board, its purpose and its membership.
- Side note, there are occasional technical issues when the site has trouble and city staff can’t fix it on their end, like last week, when some meeting agendas weren’t posted for advisory board meetings.
- Sometimes in my searching, I find a link that’s outdated or information is missing. I typically just send a quick email to the appropriate department, the city clerk or the city manager’s office and they have been quick to fix the issue. If I can’t something on the website myself, I ask for it. You can use the records request form online. You can also sign up for email notifications about city meetings. You can also find the online reporting options for non-emergent crimes, utility issues, abandoned vehicles and more. Hover over the How Do I? tab on the home page to find all those options.
Looking for something in city code? The entire thing is on the website and is searchable. It’s listed under the Your Government and How Do I? tabs. Or, just click here.
On to the Cascade County website at www.cascadecountymt.gov.
It’s not nearly as robust as the city website, but some useful information is posted on the county site.
Membership of the county boards and commissions are posted under the boards tab on the homepage. Minutes, agendas and meeting schedules are posted for some of those boards.
As for the County Commission, you’re best bet to find information is to go through the Departments tab on the homepage and click on the Commissioner’s Office.
The county sets the schedule of commission meetings for the entire year during their first meeting of the year.
You can find it on the website within the commissioner’s office page under the Departments tab. The files section toward the bottom includes the calendar, budget documents and commission agendas, minutes and audio recordings from those meetings.
On the minutes and agendas page, you’ll find the information from past and upcoming meetings. The audio recordings for the meetings are also posted. Audio isn’t posted for all of the special meetings or worksessions in 2017 or 2016, but it’s there for the regular commission meetings. Other meeting minutes and documents are generally available upon request.
Zoning regulations are posted under the planning department along with applications forms for zone changes, special use permits, varianes and more.