Oak Bluffs advisory panel member highlights value of digital media

An open house will be held on Feb. 1 to go over revised concepts for a new town hall in Oak Bluffs. — MV Times

Increasingly, town governments are finding social media an valuable tool to share information with the public and, just as importantly, to hear what the public has to say. Websites, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter, wikis and email are just a few of the tools that can enhance communication between town government and townsfolk, visitors, potential visitors, and potential business investors — at minimal cost.

The town of Dennis on Cape Cod provides one example. Dennis town Planner Dan Fortier, a member of the advisory panel that spoke to Oak Bluffs town officials and business owners on December 3 about how the town could begin the process of downtown revitalization, said social media was crucial in building consensus in Dennis, viewed by state Department of Housing and Community Development officials as a revitalization success story.

“We used low tech and high tech, from spaghetti suppers to Facebook,” Mr. Fortier said in a recent conversation with The Times on the subject of digital media.

Like Oak Bluffs, Dennis has many seasonal residents. Digital media is especially helpful in keeping homeowners and taxpayers in the loop, no matter where they are, Mr. Fortier said.

“I have a hit counter where I can go in and see where things are coming from. This time of year, I will see a lot of Florida and Arizona. I can tell when the summer people are coming back when the hits coming from South Dennis, Dennisport, and West Dennis jump up.”

Oak Bluffs is faceless

The town of Oak Bluffs does not have a Facebook page. The town website does not have a blog and there is no Twitter account. While there is a contact form to reach town administrator Robert Whritenour, there’s no way to directly email the selectmen.

On the town website directory, Deborah Ratcliff is identified as the town clerk, but she retired almost eight months ago.

Oak Bluffs also does not have an individual like Mr. Fortier to oversee social media, or a town planner. Chairman of the selectmen Walter Vail said there are no plans to have one.

“We have a unique situation because we have a full-time I.T. [information technology] director,” said Mr. Vail said, referring to Travis Larsen. “A town planner isn’t in the budget and it won’t be in the next budget. Right now, we’re more focused on things like hiring another police officer for the town.”

Mr. Vail said that Mr. Larsen, a full-time employee who earns approximately $78,500 annually, has been focused on training town employees, making software updates, and implementing a new fiber optic system that will connect town departments.

Mr. Vail also doesn’t think that Oak Bluffs town government would, at present, see much benefit by expanding social media. “We’re all such neophytes when it comes to social media, I don’t believe most of the people in this town are going to care about Facebook and Twitter because most of the people are older,” he said. “We’re more interested in having our website up to date. We do get complaints about that, and I think rightly so.”

As to the outreach potential to seasonal residents, Mr. Vail is skeptical that many people would use it in Oak Bluffs. “I don’t know how much the seasonal people want to know. I’d say at most, a half dozen people showed up at the summer open meeting. Younger people who do use social media just aren’t that interested in town government. We don’t get inquires from them.”

The Times was unable to contact Mr. Larsen by phone or email to speak about the town website or digital media.

Education is key

In an interview with the Times, Mr. Fortier went into greater detail about his use of digital media during his 11 years as Dennis town planner “You need to use social media to promote the village, to educate people about what you have, or if there’s something new coming up that you want to get people involved in,” he said.

Mr. Fortier has created five blogs, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account for the town of Dennis. “A blog can reach out to disconnected people and draw them into the planning process. Blogs can provide information about special events and educate residents about important planning issues.”

Mr. Fortier said he finds it useful that he can analyze how many people are reading specific blogs, where the visits come from and even what people were looking for when they came to the site. “Most importantly, blogs provide direct communication between the townspeople and local government,” he said.

Mr. Fortier was an early proponent of social media. He started using Yahoo’s e-groups soon after coming to Dennis in 2001. “We started with a planning department blog and an economic development blog. Along the way we added the local comprehensive plan,” he said. “We ended up with five blogs including one dedicated to Dennisport revitalization.”

Mr. Fortier said he set up the blogs himself, with no computer consultant and at no cost to the town. “Word Press is free, so there’s no cost to the town for using it for a blog site,” he said.

Mr. Fortier said that social media has saved his staff — him and his assistant — an enormous amount of time. “The new flood zone is probably the biggest example,” he said, referring to the recent changes to flood zones made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “It was not uncommon to have 250 hits a day from people looking for flood information. They can read an explanation of the map and get the explanation of the flood insurance rates. It saves us countless hours of helping people face to face. Being able to service people in their living rooms made our life a lot easier. We can educate the public on just about anything we’re doing.”

Important to get the word out

The zoning approval process has become much more efficient with the use of social media, according to Mr. Fortier. “The planning department blog has expedited the approval process for zoning amendments because it not only keeps people informed but it allows people to weigh in. I can put things going to the planning board on to the web and start to build an understanding with people of what we’re doing and what we’re about, and also get their feedback,” he said.

Mr. Fortier also said that while some people were concerned that the anonymity of the Internet would lead to less than civil discourse, that hasn’t been the case. “There have been some negative comments about what we’re working on, but so far, I think I’ve had to edit out one swear in the entire time I’ve been here” he said. “It’s been a civil discussion.”

Blogs can also help create outside investment. “If we have something like ‘Christmas stroll in Dennisport,’ we’ll put that on the economic development blog to catch the eyes of people wondering what Dennis is doing to enhance the business climate. It’s a way the town can market itself to someone who might be considering locating a business here.”

Initially, Facebook was banned from Dennis town offices because the town management information systems director was concerned about possible misuse. After Mr. Fortier showed how a town Facebook page could be linked to all the blogs and disseminate information even more effectively, the policy was changed.

“Rick White, the town administrator, has been very supportive of this,” said Mr. Fortier. “Once he saw that one click on Facebook could give him access to just about every town administrator in Massachusetts, he was all for it.”

If a town government wants to get the temperature of the town on any specific issue, social media can also provide immediate feedback. “I use Polldaddy for instant surveys and I get a pretty good response rate. We just had a poll asking if the town should follow Brookline and Concord and ban plastic bottles. We had over 300 responses. It’s a good judge of what people are thinking.”

One of the current polls on the town blog asks if walk up windows in restaurants should be allowed — a topic similar the food cart issue in Oak Bluffs which Vail said the selectmen will address in the next meeting on January 28.

Following a quick perusal of the Oak Bluffs town website, Mr. Fortier noted that the site wasn’t using virtual town hall, a platform used by most towns in Massachusetts. “It’s clean and crisp, and it has quick links, which is good,” he said. “They could definitely set up a blog on this.”

Mr. Fortier said that Twitter helped cut down on traffic congestion during the summer by posting space availability at beach parking lots. “It made a huge difference, you didn’t have so many people circling around looking for spaces.”

Mr. Fortier is steadfast in his commitment to social media in town government. “You can’t beat the cost effectiveness of social media,” he said. “It’s accomplished what I’ve looked for, more participation and getting the word out. It’s so important to get the word out.”