Chatfield’s committee of the whole looks at two options to engage public

Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

“Getting engaged” was the topic of the day last week as Chatfield’s committee of the whole (COW) met and learned about two available public engagement and transparency platforms the city has been considering to make its business more visible to residents.

City Clerk Joel Young outlined that presentations would be done by conference call with each company’s representative, beginning with ClearGov and moving to Polco, after which there would be time for COW members to discuss the benefits of having more information at hand for existing and potential residents.

The ClearGov representative shared that his company’s Facebook- and Twitter-friendly platform offers resident engagement and financial transparency tools that can be published on the city’s website, citing it is a visual assist to help show a city’s demographics, its revenues and expenditures, the factors of why it spends money on specific items and services, compares the city in which one is living to other cities of the same size to gain insight on what the differences are, shows projects and festivals that are coming up and allows the city to upload documents and pictures.

One feature that Councilor Mike Urban had questions about was the “open checkbook” feature that posts the city’s expenditures for the public to see online.

“How is the ‘open checkbook’ uploaded?”

Young added to Urban’s question, “How much city employees’ time does that take?”

The answer they received was that ClearGov handles uploading register entries for the public’s view.

Young stated, “I think there are efficiencies that can be made. The engagement and transparency piece is to build trust with the public. A lot of people might have questions, but most probably don’t know where to start if they’re looking for information, and this can help.”

The committee thanked the ClearGov representative before dialing the Polco representative’s number for another conference call. That representative explained that Polco is a “tool that allows cities to engage with the public, to ask questions, like ‘Do you feel safe living in Chatfield?’”

The tool is supposed to help cities stay updated on their residents’ needs and concerns and lend a pixel or two of useful data as cities strive to meet the state auditor’s performance measures program standards and goals. The Polco representative observed that cities “struggle to get people to participate” in surveys mailed to their homes, but that by placing a single question online for a specific number of days or weeks – thereby limiting the opportunity for residents to be overwhelmed by the prospect of filling out a paper survey – more people manage to find the time to give their city feedback on various topics through the platform, which is also Facebook- and Twitter-friendly.

He remarked that respondents are allowed to make one comment on each question posted to the site – only one comment as a means of keeping the discourse civil and structured – and that responses to questions can be broken down to show geographical information so that cities may “determine whether it’s a neighborhood or citywide issue, and map out the age range of the respondents.”

After hanging up with Polco’s representative, Young highlighted that he was impressed by Polco’s features because it could help broaden the city’s understanding of what its residents feel are important or pressing issues. He called the use of such a platform “an intentional effort” to gather information from residents who may not otherwise be willing to share their opinions.

“The community in general is pretty quiet, which may mean everything is all right, but we don’t know,” Young said.

Councilor John McBroom offered, “This could help…like when the pool referendum happened, and people said that it wasn’t very well-publicized.”

Young repeated the costs for using Polco’s services — $2,000 a year or at an unstated discounted amount for a multiple-year contract – and Urban wanted to know if there was a base rate for cities asking a specific number of questions per year, learning that the number the city can post is unlimited.

“I see SurveyMonkey things online and often have wanted to do something like that, but it’s always ‘How do you get started?’,” he said.

The city’s participation in the state performance measures program would provide some reimbursement, meaning that the effective cost of using a resident engagement platform would be approximately $1,500 a year, Urban deduced. “That would be cheap for interaction, in my mind.”

Councilor Paul Novotny asked, “If we have questions posted and the answers are all negative, what do we do then?”

Young suggested, “Then we need to educate people more, and if the answers are still negative, then maybe we need to listen.”

Novotny acknowledged that years ago, the Thurber Building, home to Chatfield’s city offices, was under renovation. “It was not popular, but people liked it when it was done.”

Urban interjected, “If there are negative answers, I’d handle it just like when people come up to me when I’m downtown.”

No decision was reached during the COW meeting, but the committee’s members concurred that letting the public tell more about their wishes and concerns could be very useful.