Column: Hey, local government. Step into 2015, will ya?

10/16/2015 6:00 AM |

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According to its most recent quarterly statement, Facebook has about 1.3 billion active users. Twitter’s website touts 316 million monthly users. About 500 million tweets are sent daily worldwide.

The digital footprints of Southold Town and Greenport Village consist principally of documents posted online, videos of past meetings and, most recently, a mechanism that enables residents to file formal complaints with the town online. These are all useful, and steps in the right direction, but the use of social media as a vehicle to get things done through government is rather limited on the North Fork.

Of the 23 elected officials now serving in Southold and Greenport, only two can really be considered “active” in using social media to encourage conversation about current local issues and events.

Neither the town nor the village has an official Facebook page. The Village of Greenport has an “official Twitter account,” though it’s used sporadically — a total of 88 times, to be exact, between August 2014 and the end of July. Southold Town does not have a Twitter account.

Greenport Village Trustee Doug Roberts maintains a public Facebook page and Trustee Mary Bess Phillips operates the closed group “Let’s Talk Village of Greenport,” which users need permission to access.

Local leaders should take note of the dialogue exchanged there: Residents raise topics that concern them and put them out for discussion or seek answers directly from elected officials, whose job it is to respond. Conversations ensue and, in some cases, that leads to action.

Granted, questions about area’s long-term future aren’t being solved on a daily basis, but discussion has addressed topics ranging from the controversial short-term rental issue to more mundane “kitchen table” concerns: reporting a pothole or a clarifying procedures for permit applications.

“But Joe,” you say. “What you just described has been taking place in person for hundreds and hundreds of years. Julius Caesar didn’t need Facebook. Thomas Jefferson didn’t tweet. Why should that be any different for our elected officials?”

I wouldn’t argue that social media should ever replace good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. And trustees Roberts and Phillips have told me they don’t either. But in the world we live in today, where so many people are connected to so many platforms that allow conversations to occur, why wouldn’t local government want to embrace whatever it can to connect with the people it serves?

We cover town meetings, but attendance is flat at many of them. Some people are simply unable to attend due to work or family constraints; others likely don’t even know they’re happening. Sure, the town and village websites have that information, but can’t there be a more proactive way to get information in front of people, through their smartphones or computers?

I recently read an article about a town in southern Spain called “The Incredible Jun: The Town that Runs on Social Media.” If residents of Jun have a code complaint, they send tweets to the mayor and the code enforcer, who are also on social media. The highway department crew tweets back to the person who complained about the pothole after it’s filled in. The entire town staff is on Twitter and, since everything is out in the open, people know when valid complaints aren’t responded to and how long they take to address.

Now, I’m not calling for the entire town and village staff to open Twitter accounts today and follow the example of Jun, which itself is still a work in progress. But it’s a novel approach that I think we can learn from locally and should at least consider to spur a conversation.

And for the record, I see it in my own industry as well as in government. Nowadays, conversations are taking place more often on social media and less often in our Letters to the Editor section. And we plan to revise our op-ed page to reflect that.

Government should consider responding similarly. Southold Supervisor Scott Russell — who is active in online comments sections, though typically only to address factual issues in stories or readers’ comments — points out that determining who actually runs the government’s social media then becomes the next question. But even for basic emergencies, if the town and village could communicate information to residents more efficiently through social media, couldn’t that be considered a win/win? And more effective uses could be determined from there.

It may seem like I’m making an argument for government to find a reason to avoid the press, long considered “the gatekeeper” of information disseminated to the public. But in the digital age, that model has been disrupted. Elected leaders and their constituents can connect so easily today that all we can do is responsibly guide a conversation for our audience on both sides.

The question is, though, is government having a conversation with the public?

Joseph Pinciaro is editor of The Suffolk Times. You can reach him at 298-3200, ext. 238 or follow him on Twitter @cjpinch.

Photo Credit: Jason Howie, flickr

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