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Where are the websites? Disparity remains among towns for 'e-Government' sites
Source: http://poststar.com/news/local/where-are-the-websites-disparity-remains-among-towns-for-e/article_c35a344a-d0ae-11e2-8a41-001a4bcf887a.html
Source Date: Saturday, June 08, 2013
Focus: Citizen Engagement, Internet Governance
Created: Jun 10, 2013

DRESDEN -- Dresden is one of five Washington County towns with no official Web presence whatsoever, more than a decade after federal and state officials proclaimed website-based “e-Government” the go-to 21st-century method to engage the populace.

“God knows what would end up on it and how expensive it would be,” said Dresden Supervisor Bob Banks when asked Wednesday about the town’s lack of a Web presence. “If people want answers, they have our phone numbers.”

Local governments, for the better part of two decades, have been shifting to the Internet to deliver information to the citizenry, widely seen as a step toward greater transparency.

The state and federal government have uploaded massive amounts of data to its agency websites, which is now available by a simple and free-of-charge search instead of a fee-based Freedom of Information Law request.

Local governments typically update their sites with recent board minutes, officials’ contact information and, in some cases, a blog for the local elected executive, a soapbox to make political points.

Every municipal website is required to provide the local tax assessment rolls, under state law.

But Banks’ far-flung lakeside, land-rich community joins Putnam, Granville (the county’s second-most populated town), White Creek and Whitehall in Washington County in not offering the Web-surfing masses so much as a landing page.

“I was surprised how many people actually go on there,” said Hartford Supervisor Dana Haff, whose town’s website, though spartan, provides all the general information typically offered by modern local governance and includes Haff’s personal, sometimes edgy blog.

Haff’s town spends $900 a year for its functional domain, hartfordny.com.

Indeed, numerous academic studies have proven America’s increasing reliance on the Web for democratic public involvement. A simple link to the town supervisor’s email address exponentially increases the ability of residents to interact with government, several reports have found.

Sixty percent of New Jersey residents reported using their local municipal website as their primary tool to interact with government, according to a Monmouth University poll released earlier this year.

A Post-Star analysis of local municipal websites found significantly more uniformity among Warren County’s local government websites when compared with Washington County.

Each of Warren County’s eleven towns, one village and one city, has a website, all providing surfers with quick and easy access to recent town board minutes, upcoming agendas and contact information for elected officials and town staff.

Day-to-day maintenance of Thurman’s recently rebuilt town site has become a daily task for Supervisor Evelyn Wood and Clerk Cynthia Hide.

The in-house approach means Thurman spends just $450 a year for the digital platform, while the small town’s elected officials keep its content fresh.

“Right around (assessment) grievance day, I’ve noticed everyone goes crazy about the (assessment) rolls,” Wood said of periodic spikes in Web traffic.

Many of the smaller towns in both counties augment limited websites with social media blasts. Johnsburg officials respond to public queries almost constantly on Facebook, on which they post agendas and other information.

The digital experience in Washington County is substantially more varied. The platforms are often older and more difficult to navigate, though the information is generally there somewhere.

Three of the Washington County town websites have been dormant for months or even years.

Easton’s website, for example, wasn’t updated with new meeting minutes since 2011.

Fort Ann’s official website, fortann.us, is merely an austere list of elected officials with a weather forecast across the top.

Supervisor Darlene Dumas’ personal campaign website, fortannfornow.com, has become the town’s de-facto location for minutes, agendas and other items of local interest.

Fortann.us is in the midst of an overhaul, Dumas said. The soon-to-be modern site should be up and running in the coming months, under the knowledgeable, and cheap, direction of her brother.

Queensbury, the bi-county region’s largest and most wealthy community, also operates the Cadillac of local municipal websites, managed by the town’s director of technology, Ryan Lashway.

Queensbury’s already robust site was recently bolstered when the town began uploading the audio from a Town Board meeting to the website less than 12 hours after the Town Board gaveled out.

Page views spike 30 percent on the day after a Town Board meeting, Lashway said.

Seattle’s website, Seattle.gov, is generally considered the finest local government site in the nation and annually wins awards from technology publications.

An updated property viewing platform, which is free of charge, has become especially popular with real estate agents, Lashway said.

Users can pay their tax bills, get a marriage license and schedule a hearing to protest a traffic ticket, all with a few clicks of a mouse on Seattle’s site.

Queensbury officials are reviewing software that would allow local property owners to, for example, file small-scale building permits electronically, Lashway said.

Queensbury’s IT specialist is planning a seminar in the next few months in an attempt to prove to other local officials a robust website can be done for relatively cheap, using in-house labor, and actually save smaller governments time and money by offering as much information as possible, which avoids time-sucking Freedom of Information Law responses.

A 2009 study by public affairs researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago concluded small, rural communities are lagging behind in the e-Government revolution, with the nation’s second- and third-tier cities that feature the influence of large tech industries boasting the finest digital portals to government.

“The baby boomers aren’t used to it,” Lashway said of how officials of different ages sometimes view the importance of a strong Web presence. “It’s the people who are coming up that are going to push for it.”

And, in some local towns, there just isn’t a will to undertake the overhaul of how government and citizens interact.

“We’ve kicked it around,” said Granville Supervisor Matt Hicks. “There’s just no consensus on the board to take action and manage it.”

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