Municipal web sites offer ‘powerful tools' to residents

| 28 Sep 2011 | 03:00

Sparta - Getting involved in local politics - attending meetings, stopping into town hall to review documents - used to be available only to those with the time to do it. But now, busy people can participate in local affairs from their home or work computers. Most towns in N.J., including Sparta, have some form of municipal web site where residents can review meeting agendas, minutes or download forms for permits or applications. “Working people, parents, seniors and young people have gained a powerful tool for participation in major decisions that affect them,” says Kevin Pollison, candidate for Sparta town council and a director of business development for Whippany-based NECA Services, a telecommunications equipment and services company. “A town council agenda, for instance, may be a heads-up that a key decision is about to be made - a decision that could impact voters’ lives both materially and otherwise.” However, to really keep up with what is happening, towns like Sparta can do more to alert residents that their input is needed - and wanted. Pollison points to Princeton’s web site ( as a site with truly interactive tools for encouraging citizen involvement. “The site contains not only a copy of the town’s master plan for residents to review, but also allows residents to sign up for e-mail alerts. Every time something new is put on the site - such as fresh minutes from a council or planning board meeting - residents find out instantly. The faster the minutes make it to the site, the more valuable they will be.” Miriam Tower, Sparta township municipal clerk, says discussions are underway to potentially create an email update service from, the town’s official web site. When a town council is debating large-scale and potentially expensive projects, community leaders can also use electronic communication to solicit more direct public input, says Don Linky, director and senior policy fellow at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics. “Closely monitored e-mail groups can be an important tool. For example, if a resident wants to object to a major capital project or even a small zoning change, his complaint via email could become part of the public record, showing up on an agenda for the next meeting.” Useful web content is key to improving citizen engagement. Pollison points out that the township of West Windsor ( has a copy of the town’s budget on its web site, as well as a page entitled, “Where Do My Taxes Go?” Broadcasting town council, planning or zoning board meetings on public access cable is also a useful tool for improving communication between local government and citizens. Sparta does not currently broadcast any of its meetings. Morris Enyeart, president and CEO of City Connections, a web development firm based in North Brunswick, says that for small towns, broadcasting meetings on public access cable is often more cost efficient than webcasting, and it allows people without computers to participate as well. The West Windsor model may be one to emulate. West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh presents a “state of the township” speech every January, holds open town meetings every three months and uses public access cable to broadcast town council meetings.