Towns use internet to reach their citizens

It’s become a tool of convenience. People use the Internet to buy shoes, check the scores of sports games, book plane flights and even compare hotels without leaving their homes.

And sometimes, people even check agendas of upcoming town meetings. Especially over the last five years, according to one expert, the Internet has become a more popular way for Delaware municipalities to communicate with their citizens.

“People are accessing the Web now for a variety of needs,” said Mark Deshon, an assistant policy scientist with the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration. Deshon runs the Delaware Municipal Web Developers Group (MWDG), which is now meeting thrice yearly to discuss issues related to e-government. “I think it’s important that towns begin to recognize that it’s a more important means of communication. There was a time five years ago that only 15 or 16 Delaware municipalities had a Web presence.”

Now, 37 of Delaware’s 57 municipalities maintain a Web site to provide another outlet of information for the public, Deshon said, and others are working toward that goal.

Millville Town Manager Linda Collins, who recently started sending newsletters to town citizens to inform them of town happenings, said that establishing a Web site for the small town is a goal of hers for the upcoming year.

“More people are on their computer every day,” said Collins, who attended the last MWDG group meeting and plans to attend the next in October. “(A Web site) would be the best way to give that information to them. It would be a benefit for all of the residents.”

Formerly a South Bethany employee, Collins said she wants to model Millville’s future Web site after the seemingly all-inclusive South Bethany site. The site offers visitors general information about the area, mug-shots of council members, hurricane and flood protection tips, and a plethora of postings about current news in the town.

On the “bulletin board” link, the town posts recently adopted or currently proposed ordinances, election information, departmental reports and meeting agendas. And on the “town council meetings” link, the site provides an archive of meeting minutes, dating back to April of 2004.

“After the meeting, as soon as I can, I post the highlights of the meeting,” said Pam Smith, a town employee who updates the town Web site daily. More people read agendas and minutes from the Web now than read postings on the physical bulletin board or ask for copies at town hall, she said. “Nowadays, people are always on the Internet. It’s convenient for all of us.”

Despite a shortage of archived minutes as compared to South Bethany, Ocean View is one of many other local towns that take a similar approach. That Web site is updated at least weekly with upcoming agendas, departmental reports or minutes from recent meetings.

Bethany Beach’s Web site contains much of the same general information as that found on South Bethany’s site and its employees post links with important information about recent ordinances and other town events directly to the main page of the site.

Links for archived agendas and minutes dating back to April of 2005 can be found running down the side of the page, along with a recent news link that details recent council decisions. And photographs of town projects, from landscaping to bandstand renovations, let part-time residents and visitors keep in touch from a distance.

Notably, Bethany Beach’s long-running site is due for a revamp, with Town Manager Cliff Graviet personally taking on the oversight of giving it both a facelift and a content upgrade. In taking on the project from the town’s Communications Committee, Graviet said he hopes to make the Bethany Beach town Web site a standout among municipal sites in the entire state.

In Fenwick Island to the south, Town Clerk Donna Schwartz said she’s likewise taken on the town’s Web site as a personal project. “I’ll sometimes work on it when I’m home at night,” Schwartz admitted with more pride than regret. “It’s relaxing for me.”

Indeed, Schwartz’s attention to the site has been obvious in recent months, with a major visual revamp completed and ongoing efforts to get even more town information onto the site. Her work has yielded praise from the public and town officials alike.

In addition to forthcoming agendas and a schedule of planned meetings, the site often indicates the imminent plans of state officials to spray the area for mosquitoes. That’s something that most local television and radio stations don’t report and that doesn’t allow for sufficient notice for local newspapers to print as advance notice, since the spraying notices are often given less than 24 hours in advance and change at the whims of the weather.

But Schwartz noted special effort to make sure the notices are posted, to give area residents the chance to keep their pets and children indoors at those times.

Also like neighboring Bethany Beach, Fenwick Island’s Web site offers information pertinent for visitors, as well as residents and property owners. From the cost of a daily parking pass and town history to lists of local businesses and notice of planned entertainment events, both towns aim to be as helpful to their visitors as they are to the residents who might head to the sites more often for notice of a public hearing than that night’s jazz concert.

But as inclusive as some local Web sites are, some towns don’t find it necessary to post agendas, minutes and similar information.

“Our objective is to tell people about us,” Selbyville Town Manager Gary Taylor said. “(Other towns) have different objectives. One day, someone will get fancier, but I don’t have the time. It serves our purpose.”

Selbyville’s Web site contains links to the town code, a message board, general information about the town and its departments and, according to Taylor, is used specifically for attracting residents and businesses to the area.

No matter their purpose, Web sites are ever-becoming a more effective way for government’s to communicate and should be utilized, Deshon said.

“The popularity as a hot topic has died down (but) the urgency is still there,” he said. “Time moves forward. It doesn’t move backward. How (towns) communicate (with) and service their public is an important thing.”