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Connecting With Taxpayers: The Electronic Town Hall Meeting.

The City of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, has seen its population triple over the past 20 years. Fitchburg, now with more than 18,000 residents, is located immediately south of the state capital--Madison. In 1983, Fitchburg incorporated most of its original township--almost six miles square--into one of the last cities created in Wisconsin. The town is a mix of agricultural areas and an urban service area (bordering Madison) which houses most of the residential population.

The diverse nature of the geography, combined with the rural/urban divide of the residents, can create conflicting priorities and adds to the difficulty of connecting with the residents. City meetings were routinely televised on the local cable access channel, but while many residents watched the sessions (approximately 70 percent of Fitchburg households receive cable television), very few attended to voice their opinions.

In 1995, the mayor wanted to hear from the residents, and he wanted to make it as painless as possible on everyone concerned. The idea for an electronic town hall meeting was developed to increase resident participation in local planning efforts. With the help of a Fitchburg resident who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Extension in Community Development, the idea became a reality in June of that year.

Format of Electronic Town Hall Meeting

The format was simple--a televised session was held with council members and others staffing a phone bank and answering calls from viewers on six phone lines. The town hall meeting was billed as a visioning session, and residents were encouraged to call in with ideas for improving existing services or creating new ones. Before the session, a flier was mailed to all residents informing them about the planned session, and during the broadcast, the telephone number was prominently displayed throughout the room. Alternating between phone calls and live responses, the city's department heads gave brief summaries of the functions and services for which their departments were responsible. The callers' issues were read aloud by the moderator and staff wrote the issues on tear sheets propped up by easels. If the caller agreed to be broadcast, he or she would be put through to a speakerphone staffed by the mayor and heard live on the program.

A few "rules" were in place during the session:

* calls must have a positive approach--this was not a forum for complaining but for creating a vision,

* all issues were accepted--no idea is a bad idea, and

* this is a team effort--the officials, residents, and staff must all work together to refine a vision for the city's future.

During the two-hour meeting, 198 responses were recorded from the viewing and attending audience (approximately 50 people attended in person). The council was very happy with the number of responses. Costs were kept to a minimum by using the existing phone systems and by the donation of installation costs from the local telephone provider. What made this meeting successful was that it was well publicized prior to the meeting, and it was extremely easy to participate.

Issues Raised

Following the meeting, the moderator created a report categorizing the issues that residents wanted to pursue. As might be expected in this type of community, development and traffic issues were the "hot topics," comprising 28 percent of all calls. Surprising, however, was that the next highest area of calls, 14 percent, were compliments to the officials for the good work they had done and supporting the electronic town hall idea. Other citizen priorities were evenly spread among recreational programming, school system concerns, park development, business development, bus service, trash pick-up, city department services (i.e., police, senior center), the desire to build a new city hall, and the site selection of a library and post office (neither of which Fitchburg had). One of the most disturbing discoveries, from the mayor's perspective, was that Fitchburg residents seemed to lack a sense of community--residents had to use another community name for mail delivery, Fitchburg was not even listed on several a rea maps, and because Fitchburg is served by three different school districts in other towns, residents did not feel tied to the community through the school system. Because of these concerns that were raised through the electronic town hall meeting, the mayor made creating a sense of community his top priority.

Implementation

In subsequent budget processes, the mayor and department heads used the information learned at the meeting to develop programs to address many of the concerns. In direct response to callers' ideas, the city made the following efforts.

* Focus on getting Fitchburg 'on the map,' literally, by contacting local and state mapping services to inform them that Fitchburg is a significant community in both land mass and population.

* Additional directional signs were placed at the major thoroughfares bordering the city to aid in locating the community. "Welcome to Fitchburg" banners were located on light poles along two major arterial roads within the city.

* An annual community festival was developed to celebrate the heritage of the city. It has grown each year to the point that it is now a widely recognized event in the area.

* The Economic Development Department of the city has concentrated on attracting the businesses and services which callers specifically identified as lacking--a multi-screen movie theater, a major food store, a heath club and fitness center, more restaurants, and a number of new businesses. The new businesses have added several hundred jobs to the economic base of the city.

* Also initiated by the Economic Development Department, Fitchburg was the focus of several local magazine articles directly targeting new business development and a stronger community identity.

* A Chamber of Commerce was created, adding to the sense of community for local businesses. In conjunction with the Chamber, a "Shop Fitchburg" card was developed to give residents a discount at local members' establishments.

* A traffic team was created in the Police Department to work with neighborhoods where concerns over speeding were expressed. Residents are allowed to use a digital 'speed board' and radar unit to educate them when they are exceeding the posted speed limit.

* Bus service has been expanded to include service to an area housing senior citizens.

* The mayor created a task force to research and recommend ways to preserve the natural assets and area of the city, which was being considered for urban service area expansion. The task force was composed of prominent environmental activists, city staff, council members, plan commission members, as well as representatives from neighboring communities. The resulting application for urban service area expansion incorporated much of the group's findings.

* Expansion of the local cemetery has been included in the capital improvement program and should be completed by the end of 2000.

* A new city hall was built, which was funded through debt approved by referendum on the first 'try.' The referendum process was another use of the electronic town hall idea, as a number of meetings were held throughout the planning stages which involved the public. A citizen building committee was formed, and worked extensively with the local access channel (F.A.C.T.--Fitchburg Access Community Television) to inform viewers. Through citizen participation and education, residents recognized the inefficiency of housing city staff at five different locations in buildings that were insufficient for the needs of a city growing as rapidly as Fitchburg.

* A "Friends of Fitchburg Library" citizen action group has formed to develop recommendations and funding for the siting of a local library. A start-up library was suggested as one of the possible reuses for city buildings vacated when the new city hall was built.

Planning an Electronic Town Hall Meeting

The main equipment necessary for a meeting of this type is a local access channel and a bank of telephones. Coordination between providers of these two technologies is imperative. Event promotion is also critical--people must be aware of the meeting in order to participate. In determining a budget for this type of meeting, a direct mailing to all residents is recommended, as well as multiple public service announcements on the local cable access channel.

For those thinking of having their first electronic town hall meeting, here are some suggestions.

* Work with local schools and media to promote participation at the meeting.

* Make it lively--have a high-energy moderator who reminds viewers that even if someone else already has called in about an issue, they also should call to emphasize it.

* Have a practice session to work through any technology bugs that may occur. Begin working with the telephone company at least three months in advance of the meeting to make sure the phone system can handle the volume of calls.

* Keep the meeting to two hours in length. Hold it in the early evening on a date that does not conflict with local sporting or cultural events (preferably a weekday).

* Invite government representatives and local community groups to participate. Have your audience warmed up prior to going live--the moderator should walk them through what the meeting will be like and ask some of the participants to write down their issues.

Some Areas to Watch Out For

* Avoid letting callers be put on speakerphone without first talking to someone about their issue. It would be very unproductive to have an angry caller cursing at the mayor on live television.

* Be prepared for some lapses of calls, especially at first. Ask a few specific people to call in right away with their issues. This will encourage others viewers to call.

* If possible, have a representative from the phone system supplier on site to troubleshoot equipment problems. Keep the phone bank and speakerphone as simple as possible to avoid confusion.

* Be prepared to troubleshoot in other areas during the live meeting with extra batteries, film, microphones, markers, easels, etc.

* Remind those persons staffing the phones that they should not try to debate a caller on an issue--simply write the topic down and hand it off to the person at the easel.

* Callers should not be asked to identify themselves by name, but they should be asked to confirm that they are residents. Caller ID may be useful in this area, if available.

Overall, the benefit to both elected officials and residents has been extraordinary. Fitchburg plans to host an electronic town hall meeting every four to five years. This time frame is long enough to accomplish some of the initiatives identified and short enough that residents still remember the last session and are able to check off a few of the prior session ideas that have been accomplished.

NORMA DEHAVEN is City Administrator in Fitchburg, Wisconsin.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Government Finance Officers Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:DeHaven, Norma
Publication:Government Finance Review
Geographic Code:1U3WI
Date:Oct 1, 1999
Words:1756
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