Balancing Technology with Humanity

Freedom – December 4, 2008 – A fascinating discussion took place at a recent Select Board meeting in Freedom, where a representative from the voter-sanctioned Web Site Advisory Committee updated the board on its research. Voters at town meeting this year approved forming the committee to consider ways optimize the town’s web site (townoffreedom.net); to improve communication to citizens.

Committee Member Sylvia Carney presented their findings, which included summaries of community survey and interviews with office personnel at town hall. What was interesting was the apparent disconnect between how functional the town thinks the web site is in its current state, and what the citizens polled in the survey would find “very useful” on the survey. Unfortunately the town office’s senior employee declined be interviewed.

But other town staffers did not feel the need for major changes to the web site. It’s a nice site, functional, with links to agendas, town departments and boards, applications and regulations, the town clerk’s office, and information on the transfer station, master plan and Old Home Week. Icons on the right side of the web page list the weather forecasts for the next week, a nice feature for out of town viewers.

The citizen survey, on the other hand, as reported, voiced a desire for changes – perhaps not an overhaul, but enough updated content to keep the site relevant and to help viewers keep informed about town business and happenings. The survey presented a list of 10 web site related items and asked responders to rank those as “very useful,” “somewhat useful,” or “not useful.”

In summary, respondents indicated they would find a monthly public calendar “very useful,” and majorities wanted detailed agendas for board meetings and postings of approved meeting minutes. Only about half of the respondents ranked having property tax information online as “very useful” and half also noted that a listing of town businesses would be “very useful.”

But upgrading the actual content would take cooperation of town officials – elected and otherwise. The select board agendas listed on the web site are very, very vague and don’t actually list the specifics of what will be discussed. But when Carney suggested the agenda deadline be moved to a Wednesday, so that the worker could upload more detailed information, the board seemed unreceptive to any changes.

Board Chair Donna Cupka had a point when she said the public should keep themselves informed and attend meetings when possible. All the information on the web site is already available from other sources, or one can call the town office on Monday to see what’s on the agenda for that night.

The Select Board ultimately agreed to two upgrades to the site: the addition of a town meeting calendar and links to the town library, historical society and elementary school. It’s a start.

But we remind readers and voters that technology is only a tool. Misinformation runs just as rampant on the world wide web where the information age has run amok. No web link can ever replace the nuances of hot debate over taxes, trees or traffic. Board members need to be proactive in chatting their constituents as well when something interesting pops up that may or may not affect wider public. A two-word blurb under ‘new business’ doesn’t really say or mean much. A clearer, more descriptive agenda item would be very helpful to town officials and citizens alike.

We know officials don’t have anything to hide, so why not be more sharing with information and proceed with an open mind, and not mistrust either technology or voters who just want know more about the town in which they live.

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