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Communicating with the public

Oak Harbor City Planners Rob Voigt and Cac Kamak have voluntarily expanded their job duties to create an inviting cyber-environment where residents can engage in open and candid discourse on local issues.

Using the Internet as a conduit for information, the two city employees developed options for augmenting public outreach and education. Through blogging, they have created an outlet with multifarious benefits for citizens. Residents can sound off on a variety of proposed amendments or city projects while being inadvertently educated through in-depth and sometimes tangential exposition.

“This way you address more issues,” Voigt said. “The overriding common themes are facilitating public engagement, communication through multimedia and ‘action research’ where participants guide the process.”

Blogging is essentially a chronological, electronic journal that allows users to post opinions, suggestions or simple thoughts at their leisure.

“It’s like a virtual, on-demand city hall,” Kamak said. “People can chime in at anytime and have their issues addressed.”

The sites eventually take on a life of their own as postings grow like branches on a tree, each contribution guiding the discussion in different directions.

“A blog establishes two-way conversation through the Web,” Kamak said. “Phone conversations or face-to-face interaction are usually specific worktime events. Blogs can be used whenever someone has time. It removes the need to be in the same place at the same time.”

Updated regularly and monitored by staff, Voigt has seen his subdivision blog — accessible at www.cohsubdivisions.blogspot.com — receive an increasing number of participants or hits compared to typical public hearings or workshops. People often observe and process the information before taking the plunge and offering their own views.

“As the safe and honest nature of the discussion is established, more of those people will begin posting comments of their own, thereby beginning the community dialog,” the planner said.

Voigt acts as moderator, throwing out topics relating to subdivisions and watching the ensuing discussions. Currently all comments, including those from anonymous sources, are posted, as Voigt “allows comments to stand on their own merit to further the dialogue.” Each comment is checked to ensure that inappropriate comments or those deviating from the issues significantly are not posted.

“We keep all of the comments, but we can’t allow profanity or inappropriate language,” Voigt said. “So far we haven’t had any problems. The beauty is that there really are no wrong answers or thoughts. We let the discussions go where they go.”

Voigt has also designed a Web Site improvement survey accessible at www.oakharbor.org. He hopes to use community input to refine the site and improve functionality. Both planners, when creating Web pages, place user-friendliness at the forefront.

Kamak is handling the 2008 Comprehensive Plan site at www.cohcomplan08.blogspot.com. The blog would have been valuable last year when the urban growth area expansion created a contentious and combustible environment at City Council meetings.

“There are not going to be any UGA expansion applications considered this year,” Kamak said. “This year’s amendments deal with land use changes.”

Public speaking not necessary

The blogs were not established to take the place of public hearings. Each medium has its place. Many people, however, are uncomfortable speaking in public, Voigt said, and their comments are relegated to one subject.

“Public speaking is one of the greatest fears for most people,” the planner said. “This is a safe space for all concerns. We want to be open to all viewpoints on the discussion and let that move the process forward.”

Voigt and Kamak were able to put the blogs together in a year. But the difference between the inventive duo’s sites is the multimedia aspect. Special care was taken to provide edification in several forms. For the visual learner, pages of information are condensed into a video format. Maps also provide context to the data and again help move along discussions. And levity is used sparingly to keep the user engaged. The planners are doing for blogging what Michael Moore did for documentaries.

“We thought all of this would be good for conciseness,” Kamak said. “A lot of people don’t want to read 10 pages. For each person who watches the video, the number of conversations generated grows exponentially.”

“We want it to be enjoyable and informative,” Voigt added.

But the aesthetics, however impressive, took a back seat to the comprehensive information offered. One without the other only provides frosting sans cake.

Outreach out on the streets

Voigt is also taking his outreach to the streets. He plans to hold roundtable discussions and informal coffeehouse meetings.

“The public is supposed to be guiding what we’re doing,” the planner said. “These avenues allow that.”

“Sometimes people come into the office with great questions or suggestions, but there is no good way to share that with others,” Kamak said. “Now we’ll have those questions in one spot as hardcopies. It’s a great tool depending on how they use it.”

By blogging, residents arm themselves with information prior to attending public hearings.

“They then know more about the subject and what to ask,” Voigt said.

“There’s a frustration out there, I think, and that often comes from a lack of education or information,” Kamak said. “It’s not the public’s fault.”

The city’s sites, developed and used exclusively in-house, are unique in a state where many counties must contract the services. Voigt and Kamak have put their heads together and developed a resource by which residents can find — or at least help create — the transparent government some people have felt the city is lacking.

“Access the blogs and see what they have to offer,” Voigt said. “I think people will be surprised.”

Ideally, the city will create blog sites for each project and proposed amendments. Another visually-based blog site for the review of permitting processes is already in the works, and the city recently launched a site for the Pioneer Way water main project.

Where to go blog hunting

Oak Harbor city staff are using blogs for public education as well as to foster discussion.

Two blogs are currently live on the Internet, one for subdivision plans and the other for the 2008 comprehensive plan amendments. Visit the blogs at the following addresses:

www.cohsubdivisions.blogspot.com

www.cohcomplan08.blogspot.com

The city’s Web site improvement survey is available at www.oakharbor.org.

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