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Does Your Local Government Promote Meaningful Citizen Engagement?

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Paul Wolf

In a previous post I discussed how Faith Gordon requested the City Council in Lackawanna, NY to make available to the public copies of the entire Council meeting agenda not just a summary. Ms. Gordon requested that the entire City Council meeting agenda including resolutions, memos etc. be put on-line, so that the public can see what the Councilmembers see when voting at a meeting.

The response Ms. Gordon received from one Councilmember was : “Why do we have to put it on the website? I don’t understand,” said 3rd Ward Councilman Francis J. Kulczyk. “Do we have to do it? Who else does it?”

For several years now the Buffalo Common Council and other communities have simply scanned meeting documents and posted them on-line for the public. Scanning documents and posting them on-line is not an expensive time consuming or difficult process. In fact putting information on-line reduces the need to spend time and resources responding to requests for information.

Governor Cuomo on January 3, 2012, signed into law legislation introduced by Assemblymember Amy Paulin, which requires state and local governments that maintain a web site to post materials online before a meeting to the extent practicable. The law takes effect in thirty days.

Paulin said she developed the bill a few years ago based on her own experience of attending public meetings while serving as president of the Westchester County League of Women Voters. She and others tried to follow along without the benefit of having the documents the public officials had.

The New York Public Interest Research Group praised the legislation, which the group said “will promote meaningful citizen engagement in public decisions and is a substantial improvement to the state’s Open Meetings Law.” “Public participation is meaningful when members of the public … can review proposals under consideration at the time they’re being discussed,” the statement said.

This new legislation should help Faith Gordon and others who are interested in engaging with government in a meaningful way. Does your local government put all meeting documents on-line for the public to see or do they just publish an agenda of topics to be discussed?

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Daniel Bevarly

To complete this particular “citizen engagement” process, are there also options for online citizen comments on the contents of those documents prior to, during or after the meeting? This would take this practice from being a transactional one (providing documents) to an interactional one (facilitating dialog).

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

As a citizen of a local county (Fairfax Co, VA), I have to say that my county does a great job of engaging its citizens. I’m not really interested in the board meeting, but they have a great Twitter feed, website, and even a local TV channel (for those who really are interested in board meeting). I really enjoy the local library reservation system – what a life-saver. Plus the fire and rescue has its own feed and holds regular “Citizen Advisory Committees” (CAC). I love my county!

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Katie P.

One of my pet peeves is when information that is already available electronically is printed out and scanned in and then put up on the web as a PDF (aka, just an image). It might take a LITTLE more effort to post the information in a format that can be searched, cut & pasted, read by a screen reader, etc., because the formatting of a Word document can be hard to put online, but I think it’s worth the effort. It can be PDF – just not a scanned image!
That said, yes, agendas online should be the minimum effort – we, too, are looking for ways to engage constituents without making them come to County Board meetings. We do a good job of pushing info and responding via Facebook, Twitter, etc., but we’d still like to reach even more of the population.

Also, we use Granicus to both stream our meetings online and to present the agendas, minutes, and archived video and audio.

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Sara Cooke

We have been posting agendas and supporting documents online for a number of years. We also let citizens know when materials are available on line through a weekly e-newsletter, social meida posts and our cable channel. The e-newsletter encourages citizen attendance at meetings, whether in person or via cable channel or website. We also encourage citizens to submit questions or comments on agenda items via email or in person at the meeting. We are working towards providing an online comment component as well.

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Michael Cohen

If you want to promote meaningful civic engagement via 2-way communication, then check-out Peak Democracy Inc’s Open Town Hall service. In addition to sending email notifications of topics and supporting documents to your constituents, Open Town Hall provides an online public comment forum that has the order & decorum of a government meeting – and therefore the online forums are civil, fair and legal as well as insightful, easy and inexpensive. For more info: go to http://www.PeakDemocracy.com.

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Phil Bertolini

Oakland County, Michigan currently publishes on its web site the Board of Commissioners meeting schedule along with meeting agendas, Commissioner info packets, and minutes. Meeting minutes are indexed on the web site going back to 1996. Our transparency web site provides complete budget documents including monthly and quarterly financial reports, and performance scorecards for key operational areas.

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