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Encinitas launches virtual town hall

Residents congregate at the Village Park off-leash dog trail. A service called e-Town Hall debuted to collect feedback on city issues and topics. The first question: Should off-leash dog park hours stay the same?
( / Jared Whitlock)

Are you in favor of keeping the off-leash hours at the city’s various dog parks? Or should they be scaled back given the two-acre dog area at the soon-to-debut Encinitas Community Park?

To get feedback, the city isn’t holding a public workshop on the matter or sending out mailers. It’s asking for residents’ views online.

A new service called e-Town Hall, powered by the company Peak Democracy, launched this past week (it’s on the city’s website at ci.encinitas.ca.us).

While 80 cities across the nation have signed up for the service, Encinitas is the first in San Diego County to use it.

Marlena Medford, the city’s communications officer, said the goal is to reach those who haven’t historically attended council meetings.

“It could be an aversion to public speaking, or lifestyle or time constraints that prevents them from being there,” Medford said.

“People do everything else online. So we’re offering them a way to interact with their local government.”

The virtual program, however, is only intended to supplement, not replace council meeting feedback.

“I think it’s going to be treated much like public comment or an email to the city council,” Medford said. “It will be something for them to consider and weigh out against all the other factors on the table.”

Another public information officer with experience using the service reported that it encouraged those with moderate views to participate, Medford noted.

“Her experience was that moderates shied away from council meetings and workshops,” Medford said. “Moderates cared, but maybe weren’t as inclined to go.”

Besides gathering input, e-Town Hall aims to educate. The dog park question, for instance, includes background information, as well as maps and park hours.

City staff can attach graphs, videos and other multimedia to boost understanding.

The virtual service kicked off June 27. As of June 30, 76 people had weighed in on whether they’d like the hours to stay the same, with 44 people posting comments. The deadline is July 11.

Lisa Rudloff, the city’s parks and recreation director, said a summary of the input will be presented to the Parks and Recreation Commission later this month. The commission then might take action, or do nothing.

Rudloff said the topic was chosen because it’s been a long-standing issue.

Quite a few residents on both sides have emailed her over the past two years. The virtual town hall, Rudloff said, will allow the department to better collect feedback.

Down the line, the department will probably pose additional questions to shape plans for trails and other outdoor features, Rudloff noted. However, the e-Town Hall isn’t limited to parks; it will cover a variety of topics, city officials say.

To register, residents must provide an email, name and address. For posts, the city can require names on a topic-by-topic basis.

The dialogue on the site is more focused than that of many blogs or social media websites. That’s because Peak Democracy moderates the website for off-topic posts and spam.

Also, if the city chooses, users may be limited to only one comment per topic.

Rob Hines, an account manager with Peak Democracy, said users are authenticated through IP address, email and browser ID.

On topics restricted to one comment per person, he said it’s theoretically possible for someone to post multiple times, but software prevents systematic attempts.

Beyond e-Town Hall, the city is trying to step up public outreach in other ways. In the past few months, it created a Facebook page and partnered with the Sheriff’s Department for a newsletter outlining crime trends.

And OpenFinance debuted last month. The software, also on the city’s website, allows instant access to budget data, which can be mapped out with graphs.

“You can see where revenue is coming from,” said Tim Nash, the city’s finance director. “On the flip side, you can see how that’s spent.”

For those unsure of how city budgets are structured, there’s also a tutorial of how to use OpenFinance on the page, he noted.

OpenFinance carries an annual $5,000 cost, while e-Town Hall is $9,000 annually.

In addition to public transparency, Nash said city staff would use the service to create graphs so financial data is more digestible for the public.

“We’re encouraging people to give it a spin,” Nash said.


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