County promotes online petition

Florida county government officials, upset with the environmental and healthtoll they claim phosphate mining has on the area, are using the county Website to collect signatures from citizens who are against mining.

Although online petitions have been a staple among advocacy groups suchas student and neighborhood associations, a government soliciting onlinesignatures is notable, according to several experts in electronic democracy.

"U.S. governments are a couple years behind on using the Internet forcitizen participation, with our focus on services and less on democracy,"said Steve Clift, chairman of Minnesota E-Democracy, a nonprofit groupdedicated to promoting democratic action online. He says most similar caseshe's heard about are outside the United States.

Three weeks after the petition went online, more than 1,700 signaturesappeared on Charlotte County's Web site (www.charlottecountyfl. com). Thepetitioners are urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an environmentalimpact study on phosphate mining.

Petitioners must submit their name, e-mail address, home address, city,state and zip code. Comments are optional. When the petition is signed,e-mail letters are automatically generated and sent to 14 individuals, includingGov. Jeb Bush, both U.S senators and two House representatives, as wellas other federal, state and county officials.

"We made it easy for our citizens to speak out," said Tuleta Copeland,a county community outreach specialist who helped develop the online petition."You've got this technology right at your hands. Putting it to good use,that's the beauty of it."

She said the county, 70 miles south of Tampa Bay and with a populationof 136,000, has also circulated hard-copy petitions in the area's five libraries.She inputs those names and information electronically. She said she hasn'theard yet from any of the officials receiving the e-mailed petitions.

Copeland said county officials hope other counties will join the onlinepetition.

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