Magazine article Government Finance Review

Connecting with Taxpayers: The Electronic Town Hall Meeting

Magazine article Government Finance Review

Connecting with Taxpayers: The Electronic Town Hall Meeting

Article excerpt

The City of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, has seen its population triple over the past 20 years. Fitchburg, now with more than 18,000 residents, is located immediately south of the state capital--Madison. In 1983, Fitchburg incorporated most of its original township--almost six miles square--into one of the last cities created in Wisconsin. The town is a mix of agricultural areas and an urban service area (bordering Madison) which houses most of the residential population.

The diverse nature of the geography, combined with the rural/urban divide of the residents, can create conflicting priorities and adds to the difficulty of connecting with the residents. City meetings were routinely televised on the local cable access channel, but while many residents watched the sessions (approximately 70 percent of Fitchburg households receive cable television), very few attended to voice their opinions.

In 1995, the mayor wanted to hear from the residents, and he wanted to make it as painless as possible on everyone concerned. The idea for an electronic town hall meeting was developed to increase resident participation in local planning efforts. With the help of a Fitchburg resident who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Extension in Community Development, the idea became a reality in June of that year.

Format of Electronic Town Hall Meeting

The format was simple--a televised session was held with council members and others staffing a phone bank and answering calls from viewers on six phone lines. The town hall meeting was billed as a visioning session, and residents were encouraged to call in with ideas for improving existing services or creating new ones. Before the session, a flier was mailed to all residents informing them about the planned session, and during the broadcast, the telephone number was prominently displayed throughout the room. Alternating between phone calls and live responses, the city's department heads gave brief summaries of the functions and services for which their departments were responsible. The callers' issues were read aloud by the moderator and staff wrote the issues on tear sheets propped up by easels. If the caller agreed to be broadcast, he or she would be put through to a speakerphone staffed by the mayor and heard live on the program.

A few "rules" were in place during the session:

* calls must have a positive approach--this was not a forum for complaining but for creating a vision,

* all issues were accepted--no idea is a bad idea, and

* this is a team effort--the officials, residents, and staff must all work together to refine a vision for the city's future.

During the two-hour meeting, 198 responses were recorded from the viewing and attending audience (approximately 50 people attended in person). The council was very happy with the number of responses. Costs were kept to a minimum by using the existing phone systems and by the donation of installation costs from the local telephone provider. What made this meeting successful was that it was well publicized prior to the meeting, and it was extremely easy to participate.

Issues Raised

Following the meeting, the moderator created a report categorizing the issues that residents wanted to pursue. As might be expected in this type of community, development and traffic issues were the "hot topics," comprising 28 percent of all calls. Surprising, however, was that the next highest area of calls, 14 percent, were compliments to the officials for the good work they had done and supporting the electronic town hall idea. Other citizen priorities were evenly spread among recreational programming, school system concerns, park development, business development, bus service, trash pick-up, city department services (i.e., police, senior center), the desire to build a new city hall, and the site selection of a library and post office (neither of which Fitchburg had). …

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