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Municipalities use Internet to share information


Local governments create Web sites to relay information to public



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March 17, 2010
Editor's note: March 14-20 is 'Sunshine Week,' an initiative spearheaded by journalists that's designed to highlight the importance of open government and freedom of information.

In conjunction with Sunshine Week, the Tri-City Times has decided to examine how municipalities use Web sites to improve accessibility for residents.

TRI-CITY AREA — Whether you're looking for the township's office hours or the latest water quality report, area municipalities are increasingly turning to Web sites to get their information out to the public.

Convenience is an obvious benefit for both the users and providers but does having an online presence make government more open and transparent?

"It's a great way to give the community information at their fingertips," said Dryden village Treasurer Rande Listerman of the 10 page site she maintains.

At ww.villageofdryden.com residents can find a proposed 2010-11 budget, various building department forms, water and sewer rates, village ordinances and meeting minutes and agendas.

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Listerman said that although traffic to the site isn't heavy, the office staff has already noticed they get fewer questions over the phone as people go online.

"It's a good way to communicate with the public, especially with the younger folks in the township. This is how they get information these days," Almont Twp. Supervisor Paul Bowman said of their Web site, www.almonttownship.org.

Like several other area townships, Almont uses online assessing and tax software. Bowman said it's common for residents to come to board of review hearings armed with information they obtained online.

The majority of other local municipal Web sites offer the basics—contact information, office hours, board members, agendas and meeting minutes.

Others offer unique documents that users may be surprised to see. The village of Almont has posted their water quality reports from both 2007 and 2008 on their Web page and the Almont Police Department even offers a Freedom of Information Act request form at their site.

Imlay City makes it easy for residents and visitors to check out what's offered through a combined Web site. At www.imlaycitymich.com, browsers can click the City of Imlay City, the Imlay City Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Imlay City DDA. Previously all three entities maintained individual Web sites.

Minutes from meetings and councilmember names other information about the Village of Capac can be found at www.villageofcapac.com

When it comes to the counties in the Tri-City area, Lapeer and St. Clair have several valuable offerings on their Web sites.

At www.stclaircounty.org, users can access searchable court case records, view court dockets, perform a parcel search and even watch video recorded county commissions meetings.

County Administrator Shaun Groden notes they go so far as to post a listing of collective bargaining agreements.

At lapeercountyweb.org, county commissioners' contact information is posted as well as Friend of the Court handbooks and policies on parenting time. Information and updates from Lapeer County Central Dispatch can be found at www.lapeer911.org.

Still, it's obvious that municipalities could add to their online offerings and often want to. Groden said a re-hab of the county Web site is coming soon.

Time or lack of technology staff can play a factor in how comprehensive a municipal Web site can be, says Michigan Townships Association's Catherine Mullhaupt.

"Some townships have Web master or other staff proficient in designing and updating comprehensive and multi-service Web site, but many rely on in-house staff or volunteers," Mullhaupt said.

Still, providing services online that need to available in one form or another offers convenience and is often more cost-effective, she added.

Although the World Wide Web is a handy tool available to government bodies, publication laws still require that public notices be posted on paper—that is in newspapers and on bulletin boards in public places.

Internet access is another thing to consider.

"I take certain pride in believing that county residents can find info quickly. The downside is that our residents are not 'internet connected,'" Groden said.

"A federal study just two years ago found that only 57 percent of houses are connected, and of those, many had dial-up service. So even if our sites were stellar, how many could take advantage of it?"

Maria Brown joined the Tri-City Times staff in 2003, the same year she earned a bachelor's degree in English from Calvin College. Born and raised in Imlay City, she now resides north of Capac where she enjoys working on the farm, gardening and reading.
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