Legislator takes tech to the people

Although technology — particularly the Internet and e-mail — is becoming more popular among citizens as a tool to reach out to their elected representatives, a political neophyte in upstate New York is taking technology to her constituents.

Erie County Legislator Elise Cusack, who represents a district near Buffalo, recently began holding hour-long computer classes at libraries to show senior citizens how to navigate government Web sites and access services.

"Quite frankly, seniors are really starting to utilize computers," the 33-year-old first-time officeholder said. "Certainly they have the time and I think the curiosity."

In Cusack's e-Seniors workshops, attendees view a Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint presentation on their terminals and can learn how to access their Social Security information online or e-mail their congressional representatives. Cusack said she hopes to run such workshops twice a month at various libraries.

Her initiatives are in step with what local politicians are doing across the country.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project, in a study with the National League of Cities, recently reported that politicians who used the Internet and e-mail as a way to connect with their citizens may be reshaping the local political landscape. But the report also said that constituents prefer face-to-face meetings, telephones and letters to electronic communication.

Cusack said she wants to create a "virtual district office" as another avenue of communication. Along with the workshops, she recently launched a Web site (www.cusack14.com) that is averaging about 280 hits a day, said her spokesman, Christopher Grant. Using content management software, she said her goal is to create a portal to get updated information and links to federal, state and local sites of interest.

Another initiative is electronic newsletters, which she said would help cut down on paper mailings — an expense to taxpayers. "The goal of the e-newsletter is really build up my e-mail list," she said, but added that government also needs to lead by example if it wants to become more efficient and effective.

Cusack said she also wants a database to track "every single person that walks into this office or calls this office" with questions or complaints and whether her office was able to help those people.

"I desire to prove the point that government can be creative and you can think out of the box," she said. "How silly we're in 21st century and not to use every piece of technology on our fingertips."

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