Saturday, April 06, 2002

Links often missing on Web

Municipal sites lack key element

By Susan Vela,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Tristate's largest communities spend more than $125,000 a year to create and update Web sites with pictures, lists of municipal events, council meeting minutes and welcome messages from elected leaders.

        Yet for all their snappy graphics and helpful links, municipal Web sites often fail at one basic mission: Giving citizens a direct line to elected officials.

Reaching officials on the Internet
        Some sites don't even list who the officials are, or they give the names of politicians who left office months ago.

        The Enquirer checked 40 Web sites of the Tristate's largest cities and townships and found that 24 provide pictures and/or short biographies of elected officials. Some even include where they go to church, and the schools their kids attend.

        But communicating with officials isn't always a mouse click away:

        • Nineteen sites provide no direct way of contacting elected officials. No home phone numbers or individual e-mail addresses are listed. Some offer generic e-mail prompts or city office phone numbers. Secretaries and city staffers usually route the messages to the proper person. But responses can be delayed from hours to a week, the survey found.

        • Mason hasn't even caught up with November's elections. Its site lists officials who are no longer in office. Liberty Township and Franklin didn't update theirs until recently, after a reporter inquired about them.

        • People browsing the Norwood and Reading Web sites will find concise descriptions about their hometowns, the latest community functions and more. But the names of elected officials, except for the mayors, are nowhere to be found.

        “It's probably pretty typical. On the list of priorities, it probably doesn't even make their top 10,” says Scott Reents, president of E the People, a Washington-based group that studies how the Internet can be used to connect people with government.

        “They're looking at it from the perspective of, "How do we save money?' not "How do we improve democracy?' They don't get rewarded for having more contact with constituents and taxpayers. There's no incentive for them to do that, and a lot of them don't.”

        Some city officials admit they haven't given much thought to it, one way or another. Many rely on staffers who tend to Web sites when they can.

        “We haven't had time,” Reading Mayor Earl Schmidt says. His city's site contains his picture and that of Mike Rahall — who resigned as safety-service director on March 1 — but not a single other elected official's name.

        “We recognize that we need to do a better job. But when you've got a full plate of things, you have to decide what's important and what's not important. It hasn't been a priority,” Mr. Schmidt says.

        In Norwood, Community Development Director Rick Dettmer tends to his city's Web page, though he admits he has limited computer expertise.

        “It's not something that we spend a lot of money and time on,” he says. “I don't decide whose e-mail gets put on there. If they don't ask, we don't include it.”

        Nancy Schwandner, 45, of Mason, was surprised that her city's Web site contains no mention of Councilman Tom Grossman, whom she campaigned for last fall, or any other members of council.

        “Someone's just not managing it properly. Who's in charge of this?” she said. “I would think the Web site would be updated monthly.”

        City spokeswoman Jennifer Trepal says the city is designing a new Web site and “we did not want to spend any more time and energy on the old site.”

        By comparison, Web sites for Sharonville, Oxford and West Chester are more voter-friendly. Visitors will find the home phone numbers and personal e-mails of everyone on council.

        “It's a long-term investment,” Mr. Reents says. “We're saying, reach out to constituents instead of building walls that keep them out.”

        The 40 Web sites are popular, recording more than 3.5 million page views in 2001. Most communities checked by the Enquirer for this story spend between $260 and $4,000 annually for their sites. Cincinnati, at $46,000, has the costliest site.

        Those are relatively small sums, but some officials see a bigger payoff.

        “The calls I get are not foolish or silly. It's important stuff,” says Katherine Becker, a Hamilton city councilwoman whose phone number and e-mail are listed on the city's Web site. Being accessible, she says, builds trust.

        Fairfield Councilman Mark Scharringhausen says setting up another layer of bureaucracy is not the goal of a city Web site, “it's just simply that this is relatively new for local government.”

        As of last week, individual e-mail addresses became available for council members in Fairfield.

        “It probably does make sense to contact us by our own e-mail address. As time goes by, we'll probably get more sophisticated,” Mr. Scharringhausen says.

        In some communities, thumbing through the phone book is still the best way of giving council members a piece of your mind — assuming you know that person's name.

        “I'm in the book for anybody who wants to look me up ... and they can contact us at City Hall,” says Thomas Fernandez, a Fort Thomas councilman. “Nobody's really made it an issue until this conversation. I'm sure if we get a lot of people asking for it, we'd do it.”

        Why wait, some local officials ask. Cities should use every tool available to reach out to citizens — and make it easy for them to get in touch.

        “We are servants of the people. We are working for them,” Sharonville Councilman Bill Lewis says. “If you don't want to be bothered by the people, you've got no business in government.”

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