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Charlottesville contemplating new engagement tools
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by Emily Berg | Saturday, July 12, 2014 at 9:06 a.m.

Charlottesville residents may soon have new ways to share their opinions with their government officials.

The city is exploring ways to expand community engagement, turning to the Internet, phones and texting to reach new segments of the population. Assistant City Manager David Ellis presented preliminary concepts for these tools to the City Council at its meeting Monday.

City staff is looking for an online community engagement platform that would best serve the city’s needs, he said.

“It’s a fairly new tool being utilized by local governments,” Ellis said. “The number of providers is continuing to grow.”

Ellis said staff is still working to answer some questions about online engagement. These questions include how to evaluate the platform’s success, who will monitor and respond to feedback, and how to guarantee that the site is well integrated with the city’s entire community engagement process.

“Online civic engagement is one tool of many,” Ellis said. “It’s not going to replace what we currently do.”

The initial cost of launching the platform would be between $5,000 and $20,000, Ellis said. He also said operational and maintenance costs could vary between $2,500 and $12,000 annually.

Ellis also discussed the creation of a 311 system to give residents the opportunity to request city services, such as pothole repair and trash pickup, through a single phone number. If the city chooses the program, it could be expanded to mobile phones.

Cell phone users could photograph hazards, like broken street signs, and forwarded them via 311 to the city. Data within the submission would help route it to the appropriate department, Ellis said.

“It doesn’t require residents to figure out what departments things should go to,” Ellis said.

Councilor Kristin Szakos suggested collaborating with Albemarle County on the 311 system.

“We have dispatch for emergency services together,” said Szakos. “This would be sort of a dispatch for nonemergency services.”

Councilor Dede Smith offered advice on how the city should approach the new projects.

“Start small,” Smith said. “Don’t try to do it all at once.”

Szakos praised the power of these new tools to gather feedback from more people including younger residents, individuals who cannot make it to town hall meetings and people who work two jobs.

“It enables us to reach a much broader segment of the population,” Szakos said.

 

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