Olathe residents no longer need to drive to City Hall to voice their opinions on the city’s budget. Now, they just need to get online.
Olathe is gearing up for its second annual e-Town Hall Meeting, a virtual event that allows residents to offer input or ask questions about the proposed 2013 budget through the city’s website, Facebook page, or Twitter account. Results of the questions and concerns will be addressed during a live televised broadcast, which can be viewed at 6 p.m. Tuesday on the Olathe Government Network — Comcast Channel 7 or AT&T Channel 99. Viewers can also watch the meeting on the city’s website.
“Not everyone has time to physically come voice their input at City Hall,” said Erin Vader, communication and public engagement manager for Olathe. “The government has to be where the people are and right now that’s social media. Using the Internet seems to be an effective method because people can send us their thoughts wherever they are, whether it’s at work or the gym.”
Increasingly, cities and other governments are tapping technology to hear from residents. Johnson County government and the Shawnee Mission school district are two recent examples.
Olathe city staff came up with the idea after realizing fewer people were attending budget workshops. After researching other cities throughout the nation, they created the e-Town Hall meeting and unveiled it last year and had a successful turnout.
Views to the city’s website and Facebook page dramatically increased. City staff was delighted to see more than 40 people had participated in the forum.
“The budget is the city’s budget, because it decides how we’re going to prioritize our residents’ dollars,” said Emily Vincent, the budget manager for Olathe. “The council takes the public’s input very seriously.”
Vincent added that Olathe is the only city in the Midwest to have such an event.
It has become so popular that other communities are seeking to replicate Olathe’s success.
Vader has been presenting the e-Town Hall structure and the city’s use of social media at various conferences this year.
Other areas of Johnson County also have turned to the Internet for input on budgetary concerns.
This past spring, Johnson County government launched an online Budget Simulator, which allowed residents to submit their service priorities and financial concerns for the county’s proposed 2013 budget via its website.
In a released statement at the time, county manager Hannes Zacharias said the goal was to increase community feedback in the budget process and foster dialogue with the public.
A year ago, the Shawnee Mission School District board also sought public input on major budget cuts.
“Cutting programs and teachers is a very emotional subject, so we wanted to generate a lot of community discussion,” said Superintendent Gene Johnson. “People clearly stated where they did not want areas reduced, which proved to be extremely helpful for us.”
But while the online survey was a triumph for the school district, Johnson said the process most likely won’t be used very often, because he doesn’t want to over-survey district residents.
But in Olathe, city staffers believe the e-Town Hall meeting may be the start of a whole new way of interacting with residents.
Other Olathe departments, such as the planning division, have been interested in replicating the online forum for other major issues, said Vader.
Still, Olathe residents shouldn’t expect an entire virtual revolution just yet.
“We still have residents who pick up the phone or send us snail mail,” Vader said. “The Internet is just one more way people can connect with us.”