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Log in and sound off on your city's issues

Published January 9, 2011 11:16 pm

Local government • Leaders rely on technology to get residents' feedback.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When was the last time you went to a city council meeting?

If you're like most of your neighbors, the answer is "Not recently," maybe even "Never."

City officials get plenty of feedback on their performance in election years but often must make best-guess judgments on issues that impact everyday life in their communities. Increasingly, cities are using technology to engage residents on everything from road construction to backyard chickens.



Most Utah cities have active Facebook and Twitter accounts. Herriman showed how effective social media can be during last year's Machine Gun Fire, alerting residents to the latest evacuation orders.

But Facebook and Twitter aren't ideal for resident feedback, said Herriman Mayor Josh Mills. The city is working with a new Utah-based social media site called iCount to survey residents on a number of issues.

"It's not that residents aren't interested," Mills said of sparse attendance at council meetings. "It's that they are busy."

Residents log on to www.iCount.com to register, which requires some personal information to verify they are actually residents of the city and to ensure everyone votes only once. Based on that information, the site will match residents with issues related to their community.

Herriman wants residents to vote on whether to bond for $2 million to complete the entire design project of 5600 West. Residents can see council positions on the issue, as well as an impartial analysis before voting. The city plans to add other topics throughout the year.

Herriman resident Laurel Price voted in the iCount survey. She drives her daughter to Herriman High School and says the route along Pioneer Road can't handle the current traffic volume. She supports bonding and completing the project while construction costs remain low.

"Our elected officials need to hear from the residents on issues like this," Price said. "I will definitely use this as often as I can, as long as it's available for us to use."

The website, which launched in November, is run by Utah County brothers Troy and Jason Bingham and their friend, Merrill Hansen. All were engaged in local politics to varying degrees but were frustrated when trying to contact elected officials.

"I felt like there was a way to use technology to bridge that communication gap and give residents a voice between elections," Troy Bingham said.

Hearing from all sides • Salt Lake City has been using a similar program since August called Open City Hall, and it seems to be working, said Councilman J.T. Martin. The city has no problem drawing a crowd to council meetings, but residents who dislike public speaking or don't have time to attend can enter comments on the public record through the site.

Martin said the program has one big advantage over e-mail ­— all comments on an issue are collected in one place, making it easy to quickly gauge residents' feelings on issues like the proposed Parleys Way Walmart or Yalecrest Historic District. Martin's only complaint is that thoughtful discussion often turns into petty bickering.

Some cities are using simple surveys to avoid that. Residents can still vote and express an opinion, but without personal attacks. West Valley City's recent survey on its city center development got 103 responses. That doesn't seem like much in a city of about 125,000, but it's "far more than you would ever get to show up at a City Council meeting on the topic," said Mayor Mike Winder.

Council meetings often draw residents who are polarized on issues, creating a skewed view of an issue, Winder added. Leaders need to consider multiple viewpoints before making a decision, he advised.

West Jordan residents didn't wait for their city to become tech savvy. They formed an online discussion group using Yahoo! seven years ago, long before social media became a common tool for government agencies.

Anyone can join the discussion. Councilman Clive Killpack and Mayor Melissa Johnson are frequent contributors, asking for feedback and explaining the reasoning behind their votes. The whole council monitors the forum and reads each post, Killpack said.

Sherrin Pelton has been a member of the group since the beginning and says it provides additional insight on issues. Residents post the City Council agenda in advance, commenting on business items and how they believe the council should vote. Pelton appreciates council members explaining their reasoning on controversial decisions.

"I think everyone who responds is pretty opinionated, and they are willing to share," Pelton said. "Whether they are willing to change their opinion is another matter."

Whatever method cities use, all appear to want more feedback. Residents can e-mail city officials, add them as Facebook friends and follow their tweets on Twitter. Mills and Winder are even honing their comedy skills in separate YouTube videos to engage residents. The Utah League of Cities and Towns, which Winder leads, is hosting a social media workshop next month with tips to optimize cities' accessibility on the Web.

"They are our bosses," Winder said of Utah citizens. "In any job, you want to hear from your boss what you're doing right, what you're doing wrong and how you can improve."

 

 

 

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