Proposed: a Northfield City Council blog

open city hall logoI’ve been invited to speak briefly tonight with the Northfield City Council at their work session. The agenda item says: “Discuss technical recommendations on citizen input.” It’s all part of the “background information as the Council begins to discuss ways of achieving and working on the goal of improving citizen communication.”

We’ve discussed this issue on LG (here, here, and here) so it’s time to craft something concrete for the Council and staff to react to. Here’s a first draft of what I plan to present to them tonight. Reactions welcomed. (continued)

Northfield City Council Blog (for example, at northfieldcitycouncil.org)

A. Online Open Mic

Erica Zweifel Councilor Erica Zwiefel has wondered what an ‘online open mic’ might look like as another tool for citizens to inform Councilors about their ideas and concerns. I drafted something back in late Jan.

What follows is a refinement of that, based on subsequent discussion there as well as my observations of one example currently in practice: the Open City Hall of Palo Alto, California, which uses the Open City Hall web service (“for governments”) offered by a company named Peak Democracy. I propose that:

  • As the Mayor and City Administrator prepare the agenda for an upcoming Council meeting or work session, they decide the most important items that should be brought to the public’s attention via posting to the Council blog, one blog post for each item.
  • A City staff person blogs these items and provides background information, including  links to documents on the City web site. (See the Palo Alto high speed rail discussion item as an example.)
  • Citizens may then submit one comment per item/blog posts. These comments are written and may include links to other sources, including an audio or video comment that a citizen may have opted to create instead of a written comment.
  • Citizens must identify themselves via first and last name, an email address, and a home address. Comments are reviewed by an independent, non-partisan contractor prior to posting. (Submission and privacy guidelines would be created.)
  • Citizens are encouraged to read the comments of others before they comment, as they may want to respond with a simple “I agree/disagree with what John Doe wrote,” similar to what can happen at open mic. But no back and forth discussion is allowed.
  • If the item lends itself to a straw poll (for example “yes, no, undecided” or “strongly support, somewhat support…” etc) staff can embed a straw poll in the blog post so that citizens who may not want to or have the time to craft a response can still weigh in.
  • The Mayor and City Administrator can decide the deadline for comments on each issue. For example, some items might warrant a deadline of 2 hours prior to the start of a Council meeting, whereas others might extend for a month or more.
  • Councilors and staff can read the online commentary at their leisure. Some items might be ‘packaged’ into a PDF and made available to Councilors. (All Councilors and staff should know how to use RSS feeds to make it easy to sort and read the comments without having them added to their email inboxes.)
  • All comments are part of the public record. While online open mic comments would not be read at the face-to-face (F2F) open mic at a Council meeting, a staff person could summarize the input received, for example, “Thus far we’ve received 13 online comments on this agenda item, with 35 responses to the straw poll: 22 in favor, 10 opposed, and 3 undecided.”
  • Each comment will have its own permalink (web address) so that media organizations and area bloggers can link to the comments, thereby spurring further discussion.

B. Blog posts by individual councilors

open town hall logo Councilor Erica Zwiefel has also wondered about “the other side of the issue,” i.e., what other tools might be available to Councilors for them to inform citizens about their ideas and concerns. I’ll only address the online tools.

betsey buckheit While there are many advantages for a Councilor to have their own blog like Councilor Betsey Buckheit, others may prefer an option that doesn’t require that level of commitment.

The same blog used for ‘online open mic’ above can be used as a Group Blog in which individual councilors can post on any issue or concern. This would be analogous to the current process which allows an individual councilor to include a written statement in the Council packet which then becomes part of the public record that citizens can read.

Councilors posting to the blog could opt to allow comments from citizens to be attached to their blog post, much like the online open mic process above. Or they could opt to turn off comments and just have the blog post stand on its own.

The above-mentioned company, Peak Democracy, also has an Open Town Hall web service (“for elected officials”) that accomplishes something similar. See the two councilors participating from Trinidad, California as an example.

The Open Town Hall format is very restrictive (councilors apparently can only ask straw poll type questions) and that appears to be one reason why it’s not being used much. I’d advise Northfield Councilors to be more flexible and informal in their blog posts. The Council may want to craft some guidelines for the use of the group blog in order to prevent it from being overused by an individual councilor or for purposes not related to Council business.

C. Blog posts distributed via Twitter

Twitter is a micro-blogging service that’s increasingly being used by federal, state, and local governments to communicate with citizens. For example, Minnetonka City Manager John Gunyou has a sidebar link to the city’s Twitter account.

One of the advantages of using Twitter in conjunction with a City Council blog is that citizens can opt to receive updates via their cell phones. While many citizens don’t use email, especially the under-35 crowd, a large majority of citizens of every age has a cell phone. And with the use of smartphones (iPhone, Google phone, etc.) expected to explode over the next decade, citizens will increasingly expect engage with city hall via their mobile devices.

City Council blog post headlines can be automatically distributed via Twitter, no staff time needed at all.

83 thoughts on “Proposed: a Northfield City Council blog”

  1. Britt, the Open Meeting Law guidelines cites group email as fraught with problems and I agree.

    A blog, however, is generally ‘public’, plus my proposal is designed so that Councilors would not be using it to communicate with one another.

    I’m fine with someone scrutinizing for compliance, tho.

  2. David, a city administrator blog is a very different animal from a council blog. Plus, I think citizens would not take kindly to having their communications to the council filtered by staff. Just imagine it under the previous administration and council.

    1. Griff: If they are going to speak to the whole council then it should be filtered. If they want to address only their representatives, then a letter or in-person as Randy suggests is best.

      Communications is like beer. A little is good; too much is bad.

    2. David… to be consistent, then the open mic, speaking to the entire council, should be filtered as well? I don’t think that would go over well.

      I don’t want you to take this as a serious suggestion. I’m just pointing out what I think is an unfair comparison.

    3. Robbie: Personally, I don’t like the open mic, either. I think that it is being abused.

      When it is being used for public hearings, it is serving its purpose. When it is being used to try to create an agenda item for the council, it is usually to circumvent the representative democratic process.

      It is the articulate and the bold who are dominating the open mic.

  3. Kiffi, I think fear of public speaking is real. For example, see this article on webMD.

    Your anecdotal account of seeing all kinds of folks step up to the open mic doesn’t mean it’s not a real fear for many (most?) other people. I still get uncomfortably nervous every time I speak in public. (I should note that many people are also fearful of participating in online discussions, too.)

    But aside from the fear, there’s another significant barrier: many people with very busy lives find it difficult to show up at a Council meeting on a Monday evening.  And if the issue they want to speak to is an agenda item, they often have to wait a long time until that agenda item comes up, as there’s no way to know what time it’ll be addressed that night.

    1. Griff, I happened to be at the council meeting Kiffi described. She says that 8 people spoke; it seemed to me to be more like a couple dozen. There were a whole mess of people who thought this was an issue worth coming out for…

      What was interesting, though, wasn’t how well or poorly they spoke, or how comfortable or uncomfortable they were with public speaking. No… what was interesting was that before and during the meeting, a very large number of people visited with their neighbors. A little bit of the visiting was shared outrage over the ordinance enforcement they were there to address. But most of it was talk about their neighborhoods, kids and grandkids, vacation plans, the cost of gas, and so on. You just can’t get that kind community engagement from a blog post. It seemed to me the council was paying attention, maybe partly because of the turn-out, but maybe also because they recognized the faces of their neighbors. You would never have had that dynamic reading a bunch of blog comments into the record.

      (I also thought John Brookins did a very good job speaking to the issue that night. He and his staff were caught between the rock and the hard place of council-established codes to be enforced, and citizen dissatisfaction when citations were issued. He correctly pointed out that the enforcement folks should not pick and choose which codes to enforce. They should enforce what the council decides. Even the most aggrieved seemed to get that… Again, not communication that would have happened in a virtual forum.)

  4. Randy, I love that kind of serendipitous community/neighbor connection-making that you described that happened at the council meeting. I’m constantly blogging about the importance of it (see my recent post Lessons for Northfield from Roseto, Pennsylvania)  and chronicling it with photos here on Locally Grown, and I personally experience it most every day. It’s partly why I’ve been pushing for sidewalk dining for years. It’s not about the beer!

    But I don’t think the Council is asking for better neighbor connection-making in their explicit goal for better communications with citizens. It’s a great by-product, similar to what might happen at a Ward meeting that Erica has talked about doing more of. But it’s not the goal.

    So I’m all for continuing what the Council is doing so that these good things you cite continue to happen. I’m NOT for replacing them with virtual anything, nor is the Council.  The Council is, however, indicating that they’re not enough, wondering what could be done to supplement them, and wondering if the internet could help in any way.

  5. In today’s Strib: Some suburbs tapping into Twitter.

    While many suburbs have experimented
    with YouTube and Facebook, eyes are
    now on Twitter, a social networking
    service that allows users to send and
    receive short messages known as
    “tweets” on their cell phones or via
    e-mail. In November, Minnetonka became
    the first Twin Cities suburb to sign
    on.

  6. Griff, I’ve been in Kansas City enjoying the daffodils and arguing public policy with my Dad (he’s anti-blog, I’m afraid), but to answer whether my concerns have been addressed I’d say “Yes and no.”

    Yes: Randy, Kiffi, John Thomas have all spoken to the value of thoughtful communication to and from government officials to citizens. We must not forget that fostering participation, including the disenfranchised, and seeking informed and thoughtful input and output are the goal of whatever medium is used.

    No: my uneasiness with blogging, etc. remains. I hope all the innovation with new media continues, but I think it’s experimental now. We can see some of the pluses and many of the minuses, but it’s too soon to pass judgment. Former mayor Keith Covey noted at the end of the Blandin Community Leadership program that he thought he should try to push beyond his comfort zone – I think I should too. I’m not comfortable with blogging, but I won’t stop working on it for now.

  7. Thanks, Betsey. And let me know if you have suggestions on how my informal proposal could be changed.

    In the meantime, I’m glad you and Erica are on the new fiber workgroup.

  8. Mpls Mayor RT Rybak and his Communications Director, Jeremy Hanson, have a new blog titled: The Mayor Blog. They’re using WordPress.com (free) for it, same as Betsey, tho they’ve purchased a domain name.

    Hanson announced yesterday that the City has its own Twitter account now, too.

    Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and staffer Robin Garwood have a Blogspot blog called Second Ward, Minneapolis. Gordon welcomes RT to the blogosphere here. He also links to his 2006 blog post that explains the blog resolution passed by the Council. There’s a link to the PDF of resolution there, too.

    I discovered all this via Mpls blogger Ed Kohler’s blog post Why City Council Members Should Blog. And thanks to ‘PS’ for alerting me to that post.

  9. Over on the N News site, the person calling themselves “Mission Accomplished” has resurrected a LG thread from March 2009 (this thread here) and with his anonymous blog-rights there, writes on the current Social Media article to the effect that, my remarks show Betsey Buckheit the flaw in her thinking regarding recent comments she’s made on Social Media.

    As usual, he/she/it is wrong – and printed blow for the LG reader’s edification are my comments back to him, made with serious reservations, as I don’t usually dabble in the toilet, unless I want toilet water on my hands.

    read … FYI as I posted on the N News. Will they print?

    victor …

    I wrote:

    Mission Accomplished, still misinformed.

    Here’s a quote for your next barrage: To respond to unsubstantiated anonymous remarks is a fool’s game. If you want to play with fools you are a fool. Betsey Buckheit is not a fool … she is a well prepared and principled elected official who appropriately speaks from her blog or from the dais. If she chooses to engage with fools in public, that, of course is her choice.

    In any event, your linking to a Locally Grown remark made by me in March of 2009, that quote, per se, has NOTHING to do with Ms. Buckheit’s personal or professional blog as you allude in your N News comment

    The words you’ve pulled, out of context, were my comments on the Locally Grown Administrator’s thoughts that “social media” might be an appropriate way for elected officials to communicate with their constitutes. The entire comment thread was devoted to that – and only tangentially touched on elected officials blogging – and not at all, on their personal remarks.

    Specifically, my comments were directed to the inadvisability of elected official engaging in fruitless written dialogue with the LG writers … or certainly not with writers of your ilk. In this latter case, that’s a lot like writing on the restroom wall.

    Elected officials have no gain in ribald, one-sided skewed discourse – no matter how informed some remark might seem to be. Locally Grown, at that point was … and still pursues the official’s remark, as it seems these validate the otherwise random opinions in their (LG’s) written conversation.

    The very nature of the process (public blogs) that allows you (as an example) to assault the integrity of one person with no empirical proofs to support your accusations is reason enough for the elected officials to steer wide from any encounter with the likes of you. You are too cowardly to attach your name, thus your remarks are valueless. You are a sniper shooting from the cover of the deep woods, an assassin.

    Why pray tell does someone so self engaged as you seem to be, fear open engagement? Perhaps because you know your opinions are slathered with innuendo, easily exposed as lies?

    Betsey Buckheit can and does use HER blog to communicate her perspective to her readers. Something the N News does, if at all, rather poorly.

    In the case or her blog, Ms. Buckheit is simply using one of a variety of acceptable communication methods available to her.

    But If she is engaged by rabble’s rhetoric, (such as you frequently attempt) that MUST be in public venues were the attacker (in this case, that’s you) is exposed.

    This would be at any public exchange: a candidate forum, Open Mic at the City Council, even an open exchange at a pub.

    I’m suspect if we’ll ever hear you speak out at any of those opportunities.

    I refer you again to my opening comment:

    “To respond to unsubstantiated anonymous remarks is a fool’s game. If you want to play with fools you are a fool. Betsey Buckheit is not a fool … she is a well prepared and principled elected official who appropriately speaks from her blog or from the dais. If she chooses to engage with fools in public, that, of course is her choice.”

  10. Up date – It seems the N News will not print my comment, citing as their reason, my inclusion of the following line

    “You are too cowardly to attach your name, thus your remarks are valueless.”

    Put this thread back to sleep.

  11. The City of Sacramento, CA (among others) has purchased the Granicus company’s eComment system that does much of what I described in the "Online Open Mic" of my March 2009 proposal above. The one thing they don’t currently offer is the ability for citizens to read the comments of others before they submit theirs.  I wrote to the company:

    I understand why your clients would be shy about monitoring/approving the comments for all to see. It’s the same issue with Facebook Wall comments or blog comments.

    I think there’s a significant benefit, however, for citizens to listen/read to what others have posted before they weigh in. That’s what usually happens at open mic at a council meeting. Citizen A states their opinion. Citizen B follows with "I agree with Citizen A but there’s another aspect…" And Citizen C can follow with "I disagree with Citizens A and B because…"

    That’s a much richer, complex commenting process and eComment should offer it. Otherwise, it’s just a more sophisticated version of people blindly submitting emails or filling out a Contact Us form.

    Also, I’m guessing that staff and elected officials are NOT going to want to read 17 comments on an agenda item that are virtually the same, for the same reason that a Mayor who chairs a council meeting asks the public stepping up to open mic if their comments are substantially different than the previous speakers.

    Lastly, I’m not suggesting that eComment allow more than one comment from the same person (like the comment thread we have going here on your GovLoop blog post). An agenda item isn’t the time and place for a gov’t-hosted roundtable discussion. Again, open mic guidelines should apply to eComment, ie, listen to others and then you have your one and only chance to speak up.
     

    Links:

    http://www.cityofsacramento.org/clerk/LBetA/PublicParticipation.html

    http://www.cityofsacramento.org/clerk/LBetA/documents/CC_0005.pdf

    http://sacramento.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=21

    http://granicus.squarespace.com/articles/2010/11/4/top-webinar-tips-how-to-manage-citizen-feedback-and-reduce-o.htm

    http://www.granicus.com/Solutions/Citizen-Participation-Suite.aspx

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