Meet your mayor...online

Hundreds of Roswell, Ga., residents can now reach Mayor Jere Wood with a single click — the reply button in their e-mail program. Each week, Wood sends out short electronic newsletters on hot topics, such as the new budget or changes to zoning laws. Clearly, it's a political tool — or as Wood calls it, "a way to campaign every day." But the reply button adds another, perhaps even more important, dimension.

"I am a liaison between the public and the city government, and you've got to communicate with [your constituents] to do that job — and part of that is feedback," he said.

Public officials across the country are discovering that the Internet can bring them closer than ever to people in their communities. They began several years ago by posting meeting minutes, press releases and other information on their Web sites.

Now, for little money and little effort, they are using the Internet to give people more of a voice in government — maybe even reaching people who would never show up at city council meetings or pick up the phone to call. Like Wood, they're using e-mail newsletters, as well as discussion forums, online comment forms, surveys and even simple e-mail links to town Web sites.

In Roswell, the newsletter seems to be resonating with residents — it has grown from 400 subscribers last year to about 1,100 today. Although not all issues motivate people to write back, others do — like last year when Wood asked whether City Council members should get a raise. That prompted 50 out of about 600 subscribers to fire off a note.

Some public-policy visionaries believe that such electronic interaction could, in time, become an ongoing dialogue with the public. With such an "interactive democracy," as it's called, citizens could have a much more direct influence on government than they do now.

But that day could be a long time coming. Communities are discovering that, as cheap and easy as the technology is, it can be as difficult to lure people online as it is to get them out to city hall.

Open for Business

Many cities believe the Internet could address long-standing problems about the accessibility of government because the Internet, unlike city hall, never closes.

Whether it's via e-mail or an online discussion forum, the Internet makes it possible to carry on a conversation with someone without interacting directly. E-mail has made such interaction acceptable and, in some cases, desirable, public officials say.

That was the conclusion of a study by the media and communications group in the Virginia Beach, Va., city manager's office. They discovered that people view e-mail as analogous to more traditional methods of one-on-one communications, and they recommended that the city look for more ways to use e-mail to increase communications among citizens, government and city council.

"It's obvious the Internet is going to be one of the major tools of communication in the future, and now we are just trying to position ourselves to use it properly," said Diane Roche, team leader of the work group and assistant to the city manager for media and communications.

Internet-based communications are most appealing to people whose workday makes it difficult to get to city hall or to city council meetings. Now they can leave messages at odd hours, and public officials can respond in the same way. That's a real help whether they are dealing with a small-town council member who also has a day job or a full-time mayor with a packed schedule.

Often, the easiest way to get the ear of an elected official is to attend council meetings, but not everyone can do that, said Bob Buckhorn, a Tampa, Fla., City Council member. "I have people who are working two jobs — they can't arrange their lives to be convenient for my schedule."

In 1995, when Buckhorn was elected, the city did not provide council members with Web sites, so he set up his own. "I wasn't willing to wait for government to catch up to the technology. I just wanted to get out there and be conversant in the same form and fashion as my constituents are," he said.

Beyond providing general information and an e-mail link, Buckhorn's site encourages people to "vote" on particular issues being considered by the council, such as a community investment tax to fund new projects. Buckhorn also asks constituents to assess his performance in particular areas, such as improving ethics at city hall (49 percent of 133 people approved of his work).

"It gives me a feel for the pulse of the community," said Buckhorn, who eventually hopes to stage an electronic town hall meeting, the political version of an online chat session.

The Internet also appears able to draw out residents who won't set foot in a public forum, no matter when it's held. "Trying to get people to come out for public meetings is like trying to get them to go in for root canals," said Wilma Smith, assistant director of transportation for Arlington, Texas.

A Web site also can serve as an "overflow" room for city hall. Last spring, after a proposed transportation plan drew 350 people to a public meeting, Arlington set up an Internet survey, which provided an outlet for another 150 or so people, many of whom visited the site between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., Smith said.

E-mail may not have the same immediacy as appearing before the city council, but it gets the message across. In most cases, e-mail messages are forwarded to council members or even printed out and included in the packets they receive before public hearings.

"We know they are using them because not infrequently they will allude to these e-mails they receive [during the meetings]," said Keith Kurtz, Internet systems coordinator for Santa Monica, Calif.

Disappointing Returns

That everyone agrees on the potential benefits of Internet communication only makes it more perplexing that so little of it is happening.

In many cases, agencies asking for comments or setting up forums are lucky to receive a couple dozen responses, if that many. San Diego, for example, received 10 to 20 comments last year when officials posted a form along with the proposed budget, and this year was not looking much better.

In contrast, anywhere from 20 to 100 people will come out to hear the city manager at public budget meetings, which the city stages 15 or more times each year. "That's where the most interaction with the public comes from," said Arlo Mag.penay, associate management analyst in the city's financial management office.

The city manager always makes a pitch for the online budget and comment form, but the questions and comments generally come out at the meetings, Magpenay said. Still, the Internet remains one of the best ways of getting information out to the public in a short time, he said.

Online discussion forums in Marion, Iowa, also have attracted little notice.

The forums, organized by each city department, enable people to ask questions or make comments about city business and view previous comments and responses. None of the 12 "conferences" has received more than nine messages, and several — including the fire department, the library, parks and recreation, and planning and development — have received none, even after several months online.

"I think it's valuable, [but] I am a little disappointed we haven't had more interaction," said City Manager Jeff Schott, noting that many of the participants only request city services.

Schott said part of the problem could be that residents just are not aware of the forums. But the city has a host of questions about the role of the Internet in government and what services people really want. They created an e-government task force to study the issue, and they included Internet questions in a survey mailed to residents in March.

It's not that people are not on the Web viewing budgets, council agendas and other documents, government Webmasters say. It's just that most people seem more interested in reporting problems — potholes, broken streetlights — than in taking part in the democratic process.

Lack of participation was a real paradox for Kent, Wash., a Seattle suburb. Over the winter, city officials began putting together a plan to deliver services online and wanted to involve residents. As a first step into e-government, they decided to use the Internet to ask for suggestions and recruit volunteers to help in the planning. What seemed a reasonable idea fell flat.

No one filled out the comment form and only one person volunteered, according to Kent's Webmaster, Dan Meeker. Residents seem more interested in reporting potholes and receiving city council agendas via e-mail than in providing feedback online, Meeker said.

But the lack of participation is not really surprising, said Gila Bronner, president of Bronner Group LLC, a Chicago-based government consulting firm specializing in e-government.

"Giving citizens the opportunity to chat and give input is a nice concept, but I don't think we govern that way," Bronner said.

However appealing the idea of an interactive democracy is, "we elect representatives to govern for us," she said. In most cases, people are not looking to influence those representatives on a regular basis.

Hot Buttons

All that changes, though, when the topic is controversial or hits close to home.

The budget is a good example, said Roswell's Wood. "I can spend $40 million, and if I'm not raising taxes, they don't care. If I were to discuss raising taxes, I would be overwhelmed," he said.

Likewise, questions about transportation or development tend to generate a lot of buzz. Typically, such topics cause a spike in responses, rather than a steady increase, city officials say.

"You can generate a lot of discussion over a short period of time, then these discussions will fade out or degenerate and you terminate them," said Santa Monica's Kurtz.

Of course, the more controversial the topic, the louder the buzz. When Buckhorn co-chaired a statewide initiative to prohibit people from buying guns at gun shows without a background check, more than 2,000 separate comments came into his Web site (58 percent supported the bill, which eventually passed). That's 10 times the number of hits on most other issues.

In part, that's because some people voted multiple times, forcing Buckhorn to change the Web site to reject follow-up votes. But the spike in traffic generally reflected "the sensitivity of the issue and the extreme feelings on both sides," he said.

Buckhorn also saw his Web site overwhelmed by traffic from across the country, as national lobbying groups caught wind of the issue. When the stakes are high, he discovered, the Web inevitably adds a national or even global dimension to local politics.

Virginia Beach stumbled on the same lesson last year, when the City Council was considering an expansion of the city's marine science museum. The proposal included the option of adding a dolphin tank, a source of controversy in numerous cities, which brought thousands of e-mail messages a week to council members.

"You can take a local issue, which, five or 10 years ago, might have gotten some letters from residents, and now you can deluge the council," said David Sullivan, chief information officer for Virginia Beach.

The council ultimately decided not to go forward with the plan, citing the construction costs. "But the animal rights issue expanded the conversation, and the Internet certainly played a part in that," he said.

The specter of an e-mail deluge concerns some public officials. Internet feedback already has increased the workload for Virginia Beach council members, even without the controversy, Sullivan said. Each week, council members receive printouts of all correspondence, and now with all the e-mail messages coming in, that stack can run two inches thick. "It's information overload," he said.

It's especially perplexing for mayors and council members who also have day jobs. On the one hand, e-mail is a great way for people to reach them outside public meetings. But it also requires that officials take the time to read their messages. That's a problem for Tim Clark, a member of the Kent City Council.

"I don't read my e-mail every day," Clark said. "People who read their e-mail every day have their e-mail on a computer at the place where they work. Our office is just a place where you come to pick up your mail."

But it may just be a matter of time for most cities before their residents get into the habit of communicating via the Internet, particularly in regions with high Internet access, such as Roswell. After two years of providing e-mail links, "it's a real burden to keep up," said Kelly Collins, community information manager.

One problem is the expectation that each e-mail message will get an immediate response, Collins said. Roswell's Web site carries a warning that, due to the high volume of e-mail messages, they can't guarantee a personal response. And if citizens require an answer, they must provide their name and contact information. Even then, city officials must still plow through all the e-mail messages to sort out which ones need responses.

"I think for a while," Collins said, "we will struggle with information overload."

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