Freedom — January 31, 2008 — The Freedom Board of Selectmen rejected a proposal from residents urging them to improve the town’s Web site on Monday night, as the plan came two weeks too late to include in this year’s budget. The board did not see a demand for online meeting minutes and feared continuous updates could become too costly.
Resident Peg Scully presented a three-page, collaborative proposal that included a list of high priority information and helpful links to be added to Freedom’s Web site, www.townoffreedom.net. Scully deemed agendas, minutes, and membership listings for the Board of Selectmen, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment, Conservation Commission, and Forest Advisory Board to be the most important. She also included the frequency that information would need to be uploaded to each item, as well as the estimated upload time.
Scully said that 56 percent of respondents to a community survey in 2005 rated the quality of “communication about programs and activities by Town and Town Boards” to be fair or poor. Forty-four percent rated it excellent, very good or good. She added that posting more information online would decrease the workload on the two Town Office staff members while increasing convenience for residents.
Though Scully estimated that her plan would cost only $320 a year, the selectmen remained concerned over the total price and hidden costs. Board Chair Les Babb explained that Tamworth just went through similar Web site improvements and only wanted to spend a couple hundred dollars. According to Babb, they ended up spending about $3,000 to revamp the site by the end of the project, excluding the costs of updates, paying a Webmaster, and any yearly fees.
“Keeping it updated is a big hassle,” he added, noting that many local towns are unable to update on a continuous basis because of time and funding restraints. Many are only updated through December.
The goal of the Web site proposal is “To increase the communication and distribution of public information from the town to its citizens by adding town information to the Web site, thereby making it available to a greater number of citizens at any time these citizens might want to access it.” However, the selectmen worried that the proposal went too far beyond what is considered “town information.”
In addition to town links to Web sites for the Freedom Public Library, Freedom Elementary School, the town forest, and the local trail map, Scully’s proposal included links to information from the state, land trusts, and the University of New Hampshire. Selectman Jim Brown worried that adding these links would increase the Web site’s upload time, therefore increasing the cost to the town.
“It’s costing us more money to have [a Webmaster] do this for links that we don’t need,” said Brown. “The town links, I can understand that… I just don’t think we should be weighing our Web site down with all these links.”
Selectman Donna Cupka agreed, adding that residents can easily track down state Web sites with a search engine. “Stick with the town stuff, everything else you can Google from there,” she said.
Town Webmaster Lori Palmer, a fourth-grade teacher at Freedom Elementary School, thought Scully had underestimated the upload times.
“Right now, we’re updating agendas, but not archiving agendas,” explained Palmer. “All I have to do is click save, and it saves over the old one. And it does take about five minutes.” However, archiving materials would require her to save the minutes as a new file, doubling the estimated upload time to 10 minutes. “That applies to anything that’s archived,” she said. “Basically its just going to be the cost difference between posting and archiving.”
She added that changing Microsoft Word documents into Adobe PDF files is another time-consuming process, and it can takes 15 to 20 minutes to scan and convert a four-page document into a PDF. This is the process she would need to use to post meeting minutes. Palmer currently uses Microsoft Office 2000 and Adobe 6.0 software.
Scully believed that simultaneous uploads done on a once a week schedule could keep the estimated total time for Web maintenance at 30 to 90 minutes a month. With only 16 hours of “recurring effort” a year, costs could still be kept at a minimum. “The bottom line says the cost would be $320 a year,” said Scully, assuming the Webmaster is paid $20 an hour. “To me it’s a most important thing, updating information and making sure that’s available.”
Cupka and Babb said there was no demand for meeting minutes. Administrative Assistant Karen Hatch echoed that sentiment, adding that not one resident has ever asked her for Board of Selectmen minutes. Brown was not convinced that public interest was high enough, as meeting attendance is typically poor.
Scully insisted that accessible information would increase public involvement in Freedom’s affairs. “If it’s there, they’ll come,” she said. “I think a lot of people will use the Web site.”
Babb said it was too late to include the item at Town Meeting and next year’s budget has already been set. The current Web site format is already included in the budget under computer support. “Right now the funds are not in the budget,” he said. “Maybe next year.”
He admitted that Web site improvements should be done at some point, though he disagreed with Scully over what should be considered high priority information. Babb said the board approves things based on demand, and they saw no such demand for minutes. He noted that tax maps and tax cards are often requested; he hopes to get that information on the Web site in the future to cut down traffic at Town Hall.
“It’s a nice Web site so far, the information on it just needs to be increased,” said Scully, whose first priority would be to get the minutes online. “I thought it was a proposal well within reach. It doesn’t look like it will happen this year.”