On the Internet, some towns lag
For the computer literate, a few clicks of a mouse can eliminate a trip to town hall to find needed information or the time spent making a telephone call that ends with a voice mail message.
Many municipalities across the state and the country have found that a web site can be an effective and efficient way to provide information and forms. The web menus often include information on zoning regulations, meeting minutes, assessments, and municipal announcements.
The six Vineyard towns, along with the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and the County of Dukes County, have an official web presence on the Internet.
To varying degrees the towns are taking advantage of the Internet. For example, property owners in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury can pay their taxes on line.
However, a recent review by The Times found that the amount and timeliness of the information provided on Island municipal web sites varies greatly. In many cases, the end result is determined by the amount of time and money local leaders devote to providing information on the Internet.
Chilmark, West Tisbury, and Dukes County provide an extensive virtual database of information and documents. Meeting minutes and contact information are easily found.
By contrast, the Edgartown and Tisbury town web sites provide far less information. And the town of Aquinnah, which does not have a web site, posts a single page on the Dukes County website.
A web site requires an investment of time and money. Oak Bluffs has a full-time employee who is responsible for maintaining town computers and the web site. Chilmark and Tisbury have employees that maintain the town web sites, in addition to meeting other responsibilities. The maintenance does not require computer programming.
West Tisbury has a contract, part-time webmaster. Edgartown plans to hire an information technology specialist, but for now the town web site remains well out-of-date.
Information is key
According to web designers with experience in constructing town web sites, effective municipal sites target specific categories of web visitors, such as community members, tourists, and businesses.
Dave Kelley, webmaster and owner of the Arizona-based web design company Presenceknown.com, builds and maintains numerous web sites, including town sites. He described a good town web site in an e-mail to The Times. "A municipal web site today needs to have everything the citizens and visitors want and in as few clicks as possible.... The new style of government web sites need to simply ask one question in its design: what do you want? Then take them there as quickly and simply as possible," wrote Mr. Kelley, who recently signed a contract to design and maintain the official town web site for Aquinnah.
Travis Larsen, Oak Bluffs information technology (IT) manager, described similar goals for the Oak Bluffs town web site redesign. Mr. Larsen said that, after visiting IT departments in other towns and cities, he believed a well-designed town web site should organize information for three groups of web traffic: residents, visitors, and businesses.
Mr. Larsen said that many larger towns have full-time webmasters. Although his responsibilities include updating the Oak Bluffs web site as he receives information from town departments, Mr. Larsen also maintains all computer and phone systems for the town.
Vineyard town officials are beginning to recognize the value of an up-to-date web site, particularly for seasonal residents seeking information.
Officials in Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, Aquinnah, and Edgartown told The Times they are in the process of redesigning their town web pages to make the sites easier to use for browsing visitors and town departments that want to update information.
Following is a thumbnail description of Island municipal web sites and the web addresses.
The Town of Aquinnah web page (http://www.dukescounty.org/Pages/DukesCountyMA_Aquinnah/index) currently consists of a single page on the Dukes County web site. The page provides a brief description of the town and the names and numbers for several town officials and a link to the Wampanoag Tribe web site.
Jeff Burgoyne, Aquinnah town administrator, said that the town is in the "very, very, first step" of creating a web site. The town recently signed a contract with Presenceknown.com to create and maintain the new Aquinnah web address, www.aquinnah.gov. According to the contract, the web site will cost $2,500 for "design and development" and $3,000 a year for maintenance, e-mail addresses, and other services.
The Chilmark web site (http://www.ci.chilmark.ma.us/) is one of the Island's most complete municipal sites. Virtual Town Hall, a web site company contracted by the county, designed the site. Chuck Hodgkinson, a town hall employee, maintains the content.
Visitors will find approved Selectmen's meeting minutes, minutes of other town committee meetings, annual and special town meeting warrants, and vote results.
The e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and mailing addresses for most Chilmark town employees are conveniently listed on a single page.
The web site contains all town by-laws, Mr. Hodgkinson told The Times in a recent telephone conversation. Town permits and forms are also downloadable.
Other potentially useful information - such as how to maintain dirt roads or register a boat in Massachusetts - is provided. The "Summer Information" page contains information that may be useful for summer visitors, such as how to acquire beach access and where ATMs are located.
Mr. Hodgkinson, who manages the web site's content as one of many town hall responsibilities, said the site is updated as he receives information from the town clerk. Mr. Hodgkinson described the Chilmark web site as a "current, factually accurate library of town business."
The town pays a $315 yearly maintenance fee to Virtual Town Hall, said Chilmark town accountant Tom Wilson. Chilmark's relative low-cost is because the town took advantage of a contract the county negotiated with Virtual Town Hall.
The West Tisbury town web site (www.town.west-tisbury.ma.us) is well organized with much up-to-date information. For instance, minutes for all departments are available on a single web page.
Most town employee e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and mailing addresses are conveniently listed in a town directory.
Bruce Stone, West Tisbury Town Accountant, said the town spent $2,800 in maintenance in 2006 out of the town hall budget. The town also pays a webmaster for about four or five hours of work a month to keep the site up-to-date, Mr. Stone said.
The Edgartown town web site (www.edgartown-ma.us) is divided into departmental sections where contact telephone numbers and addresses are available.
The most recent selectmen's meeting agenda and minutes are dated November 2, 2004. The 2007 town department calendars are blank.
The town is in the process of hiring a full-time IT employee for the first time. "We want to make a web site that is more usable for everybody, including the departments," selectman Arthur Smadbeck said. "We're going to rely on the new IT guy to steer us in the right direction."
The Oak Bluffs town web site (www.ci.oak-bluffs.ma.us) greets visitors with a convenient news section that lists major events planned in the town.
Town Selectmen's minutes are available through April 24. Other departments' records and documents are available on departmental pages, although some sections - such as the Parks and Recreation Department that lists a schedule for 2006 - are out-of-date.
E-mail addresses, phone numbers, and mailing addresses of most town employees are conveniently listed on a single page. The site allows residents to pay their town taxes online.
Presently, the town is entirely redesigning the web site. Mr. Larsen said that he hopes the framework of the site will be up within the next month.
Mr. Larsen said that part of the goal in the redesign is to make "it an easier vehicle for departments to either make their own changes or easily submit their changes."
The Tisbury town web site (www.tisburygov.org) features "News" and "Events" lists on the homepage. However, the news has not been updated since last October and the last event listed took place in April. Selectmen meeting minutes are not available, although some departments do post recent meeting minutes.
The site does allow residents to pay their town taxes online.
Presently, some departments have staff trained to update their section of the web site, said town administrator John Bugbee. Tisbury is also in the process of redesigning its web site. Virtual Town Hall has been contracted to work with the town to redesign the site for a one-time fee of $7,995, and about $2,000 a year thereafter for services including a new e-mail system.
Mr. Bugbee said, "We're going through this soup to nuts to make sure that we can incorporate as much as possible so that we can take some of the strain off the workers and allow them to do more of their job-related duties and more of the customer service duties that people may be able to do themselves, if they so chose.
He hopes the site will feature "anything and everything that you need to know about the Town of Tisbury and doing business with us."
The Dukes County web site (www.dukescounty.org) is divided into sections, for example residents and visitors, intended to more readily point web traffic to useful destinations.
A convenient database provides County Commission meeting minutes from January 1999 through February 2007. There is a "county news" section on the homepage that also list recent events.
County Manager Winn Davis said the site cost $5,000 to design and costs around $5,000 in yearly maintenance. It was designed by Virtual Town Hall after the county began working with them in 2003.
The Wampanoag Tribe website (www.wampanoagtribe.net) was designed by Virtual Town Hall and is maintained by Richard Randolph.
The site features a schedule of Tribal events and a "Tribal News" section on the main page. However, the news has not been updated since January.
While the web site offers a good deal of information on the Tribe generally, council meeting minutes and other Tribal records are not available on the site.
Wampanoag Tribe Associate Planner Richard Randolph maintains the site, updating information as it is made available to him by departments.