Voters Increasingly Expect Vt. Towns To Join Digital World

03/05/12 7:34AM By Kirk Carapezza
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Internet openness "is both a democratic ideal and a democratic nightmare," says David Weinberger, a researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
(Host) Tuesday is Town Meeting Day, when many Vermonters value debating local issues and interacting with their local government in person.

But, as VPR's Kirk Carapezza reports, many voters increasingly expect their towns to take advantage of the digital world as well.

(Carapezza) Helen Labun Jordan gives a presentation to dozens of town leaders inside a stuffy classroom at Vermont Technical College in Randolph.

(Jordan) "How many people use Doodle?"

(Carapezza) A few hands shoot up in the air.

Jordan stresses that using the Internet - specifically social media - can make their lives more efficient.

Jordan is Program Director of e-Vermont, a community broadband project dedicated to helping towns get online. She's often asked how to get folks who are not digital natives but who are still running small town government to see the value of the Internet.

Jordan will say, again and again, the key is to find the specific hook and "being able to catch them at that point where they're crossing the threshold because they want to not because they ought to."

Across Vermont, many citizens think their town officials should already know how to warn a meeting via Twitter, post an agenda on Facebook and upload select board minutes to their municipal Website.

But in this digital age, Jordan says the important thing to remember is that new networks can complement existing community connections rather than replace them.

(Jordan) "It's not a magic cure-all to put something online and suddenly a million people are going to follow it. You still need to do that outreach and get feedback from folks on how the site is working."

(Carapezza) Moving town business online can also complicate public discourse. In the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, the town of Bethel found itself with two competing Facebook pages - one moderated by the Select Board, the other by volunteers. It hindered recovery efforts.

(Lierman) "I've started a bulletin board. I'm trying to figure out how to make the best use of it before Town Meeting Day."

(Carapezza) Bruce Lierman is on Bennington's Regional Planning Commission. He attended the e-Vermont workshop, taking notes on his laptop in the back of the classroom.

Vermont cities and towns are moving to Facebook and other social media for town business.
On Town Meeting Day, North Bennington voters will consider a proposal requiring their elementary school operate apart from any supervisory union. It's a topic that Lierman struggles to moderate online.

(Lierman) "There's a lot of information about the independent school assessment. I have to find a way to get that online on the bulletin board, and collect comments from people."

(Carapezza) It used to be that citizens would hash out ballot items at town meeting. Now, residents can have that debate online. David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says that's changing the very nature of debate.

(Weinberger) "The Internet allows everybody to participate in the debate, which is both a democratic ideal and a democratic nightmare."

(Carapezza) Weinberger says cities and towns should think strategically about online debates.

(Weinberger) "You should not assume that simply putting up a discussion space is the obvious and right thing to do. Whenever you create a discussion space you are always implicitly anticipating the sort of conversation."

(Carapezza) He recommends that town officials fine-tune their online discussions by providing structure, changing settings and, above all, compromising, as they will across the state this week on the floor of town hall.

For VPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza.

Vermonters can help share results from their town meetings on VPR's Public Post. You can find directions and VPR's live blog here.

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