April 11, 2007

GETTING TECHNICAL: Cities Use Blogs, E-Mails to Keep Residents in Loop

By Frank Witsil, Detroit Free Press

Apr. 11--When Warren Mayor Mark Steenbergh wants to communicate directly with the city's 138,000 residents, he turns to the Internet.

Steenbergh said he took a cue from business leaders and created a blog. He admits he writes his thoughts out longhand and needs a staff member to help him. But so far, he said, the responses -- to his use of technology, not necessarily to the comments he has posted on the city's Web site -- have been overwhelmingly positive.

"If there is something that ticks me off or I'm happy about, I get on there," said Jean Cyrulewski, 64, a Warren resident and salon owner. "If you want to build your city, you need to be ahead of the technology -- or at least keep up with it."

And that's what municipalities in metro Detroit -- and nationwide -- are trying to do.

In addition to blogging, which Warren's mayor began doing in January, the city also produces video and audio news programs about what's going on in the city. Residents can download those programs to handheld electronic devices, such as an iPod.

Even smaller cities, such as Pleasant Ridge, are trying to scrape together the money to create a Web site. Larger cities like Novi and Livonia are sending e-mail updates to residents and investing in laptops and financial software.

Technology has become so important to communities that it is sometimes a key qualification for city managers.

Before Ferndale hired Robert Bruner Jr. in February as city manager, the council wanted to know how he would help the city make better use of technology.

One answer: Encourage residents to send him e-mail. With e-mail, Bruner said he is accessible through his handheld device at all hours, and he can respond quickly without taking up staff time -- or making residents wait.

And although Ferndale has a Web site, Bruner envisions a day when that site will do more, such as accept parking ticket payments online.

In 2001, the Michigan Municipal League, a nonprofit association, released a survey of its members and how they were using technology. Of the 282 communities that responded, less than half said they had Web sites.

Since then, more than 90% of the state's municipalities have started Web sites, said Roberta Estes, the owner of a technology consulting firm in Hartland. Based on her experience, as many as 10% may offer services such as online bill payments.

In Livonia, city officials realized that they could save at least $40,000 a year by buying laptops for council members and providing them the tens of thousands of pages of background documents electronically rather than on paper.

Contact FRANK WITSIL at 248-351-3690 or [email protected] .com.


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