Cyber citizenship

As Encinitas puts e-Town Hall to the test, debate circulates about system’s merits


In community blogs, comments and group conversations, residents have been talking about the positives and the negatives of e-Town Hall. Some are expressing concerns over the actual impact on promoting public engagement, the relevance of topics and the ease of which a non-resident can sign up for an account. (North Coast Current photo illustration)

Gisela Lagos

E-Town Hall/Peak Democracy is the newest in a line of efforts Encinitas has made to increase public engagement, but not everyone is convinced that paying for the pilot program was money well spent.

In community blogs, comments and group conversations, residents have been talking about the positives and the negatives of e-Town Hall. Some are expressing concerns over the actual impact on promoting public engagement, the relevance of topics and the ease of which a non-resident can sign up for an account.

“We as a government need to access the public however we can,” incoming city Councilwoman Catherine Blakespear said. She said she has only used e-Town Hall as an Encinitas resident but added that she is interested in being able to use the program as a City Council member.

Encinitas is the first city in San Diego County to sign up for Peak Democracy and is in the middle of a one-year pilot program at a cost of $9,000. With three questions — one of which is now closed to comments — e-Town Hall has gathered more comments per question than most Encinitas-based blogs. The topic “At Home in Encinitas — Updating the City’s Housing Plan” has more than 700 posts.

The topic has been a key component in garnering residents’ feedback as the city works to update its state-mandated housing plan, which includes an affordable-housing element.

The first (now closed) question posted on e-Town Hall regarded off-leash dog park hours, and it sparked the criticism that the program is being used for “irrelevant time-wasting internet polls,” as one anonymous poster on the blog Encinitas Undercover wrote.

Some have called the off-leash dog park question a tester question, yet, according to Marlena Medford, communications officer for the city of Encinitas, even a question that wasn’t meant to create a change sparked steps that would benefit the city. Staff members have been directed to look into placing barriers between off-leash parks and children’s playgrounds after several replies to the question brought up the issue of children’s parks being open to off-leash dogs.

“I think this is an example of how that online conversation provided useful feedback for our city’s decision-makers,” Medford said.

She described it as a ripple effect of community members commenting on a question and bringing up ideas that the city may not have had on its radar.

“The citizens have good ideas,” Blakespear said. “It takes one citizen writing it one way, or a lot of people talking about the same thing.”

The Peak Democracy software uses geocoding for each user, which codes each statement or comment with the users declared address.

“The location of a person’s address is used to place the person’s statement inside (or) outside (the) neighborhoods in the city,” said Robert Vogel, co-founder of Peak Democracy.

Some residents have an issue with the “self-declared” portion of the system, and others on blogs see it as simply an extension of the same problem with traditional City Council meetings because speakers at meetings have to self-declare their residence. An anonymous writer at Encinitas Undercover brought up a council meeting where people from outside Encinitas spoke regarding a ballot measure.

“Those folks could have easily declared themselves to be residents of new Encinitas — there would be no way to catch them,” the contributor wrote.

While people who really want to skirt the system could be able to do so, it’s not a major concern for city officials. They trust the filtering system that allows them to sort between comment locations, and overall the city is using e-Town Hall as an additional tool for public engagement, not to make final decisions.

Expanding on the benefits of e-Town Hall, Medford gave the example of the off-leash question, which gained 373 comments and replies. She calculated that given three minutes to speak for each person, e-Town Hall gave the city an additional 18.7 hours of public comments in just those 373 comments and replies.

“For many people, attending a public meeting and speaking at the podium is not practical or comfortable,” Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer said, “but entering comments online from the convenience of their own computer is a lot more appealing.”

E-Town Hall was funded under the city’s PEG Fund, which is a fund that may only be used for public, educational and governmental access development, is not funded by tax dollars, and is not a part of the general budget. The program has been launched for a one-year pilot program and will be up for price negotiations once the contract has ended in 2015.

“The overall goal is to get the public more involved in the projects and topics that affect the future of our community,” Medford said, “and we see online technology as a powerful way to make that happen.”

With a population of more than 60,000 people in Encinitas, a program that has gathered less than 1,000 comments per question may not seem beneficial, but resident Tiffany Fox said she found a different benefit.

“I’ve found the comments on Peak Democracy to be extremely civil, even when people have strong opinions,” Fox said. “I have a big problem with some of the bloggers and commenters in this town, especially those blogging anonymously. Anonymity breeds lots of back-biting and discourse that is not civil.”

While community blogs provide additional information for residents, they can also reflect acts of bullying between people who reply and comment anonymously. Peak Democracy has the ability to move bullying posts from the public forum to a private one, but Vogel said they have not had to do that for e-Town Hall.

Overall, program users tend to be satisfied with their experience on e-Town Hall. Out of 341 users who answered a satisfaction survey, 89 percent answered that they were satisfied with their experience.

City officials said that they are still trying to get the word out about e-Town Hall and they are working on making it an even more engaging experience, but they are optimistic with the current participation and media/social media coverage.

Gisela Lagos is a San Diego freelance writer