Virtual City Hall, the newest addition to the city website, allows residents to get involved in community issues without having to attend City Council meetings. They can write comments, answer questions, rate options, view details about a project like maps and photos, and even see how their neighbors are responding with summaries and other demographic tools.

In the virtual world

City introduces new tool to engage residents

by Tracy Chamberlin

Maybe it really does matter. The City Council’s decision to allow retail marijuana shops downtown. The choice to limit the number of vacation rentals on Third Avenue; or, how about the “Arc of History” sculpture at the new 160/550 continuous intersection?

Maybe those living and working in Durango want to join the conversation, add their opinions or even offer up their expertise.

But trying to squeeze a 6 p.m. public meeting at City Hall into an evening already stuffed with family or tucked between day and night jobs, just doesn’t work for many residents.

Even emailing thoughts to one of the city departments after all those other tasks are ticked off the to-do list isn’t worth losing another 20 minutes of sleep for some.

However, the City is hoping to change all that with a new tool, launched this week, called Virtual City Hall.

Get in the know

Check out the new site and sign up by visiting click on the Virtual City Hall tab on the left side of the city’s home page,

The website allows residents to comment on issues, but not in the typical public forum or by emailing department directors. They can write comments, answer questions, rate options, view details about a project like maps and photos, and even see how their neighbors are responding with summaries and other demographic tools.

Residents can stay anonymous or include their names. And, when they sign4

up they’ll get an email letting them know when new topics are posted on the site.

Sherri Dugdale, assistant to the city manager, said it’s a chance to be engaged with City Council, city staff and other residents without having to make that 6 p.m. meeting.

“Not all citizens are able to attend the council meetings,” she said. “This tool allows them to get information on an issue and weigh in on the discussion.”

Feedback is critical. Not just to the process or the Virtual City Hall, but to city staff. “We are their government,” Dugdale said.

Staff can dream up ideas and think they have their fingers on the pulse of the community, she explained, but they don’t really know if they do until they talk to residents.

This new tool allows city staff to engage directly with residents. For example, the new art piece recently installed at the 160/550 intersection, the “Arc of History.”

City staff hosted a meeting ahead of the selection to find out which of the finalists residents preferred, complete with a chance to meet the artists. They sent out press releases to local media outlets, put up a notice on the city website and even held the meeting at the Durango Public Library in an attempt to increase foot traffic.

And, they got the average attendance count of 30 to 40 people, in a town of almost 17,000 residents.

With Virtual City Hall, staff could have put up pictures of the artist’s conceptions, added maps of the location of the installation, as well as other information about the project. Residents would then have been able to comment, vote and engage in the decision-making process on their own time.

The site also gives people the chance to see what others are saying and break down the information using maps, summaries and demographic tools. “On this particular tool you can see the comments made by your friends and neighbors,” Dugdale said.

And, it doesn’t end once residents click the “Submit” button on the bottom of the screen. Dugdale said the site will also include the final action. Each topic includes an “Outcome” tab, where residents can see what the decisions were, how they were made, and if their comments were incorporated into those decisions.

“Our hope is that this tool will be a two-way street,” she added.

The previous attempt at virtual public outreach was Durango’s Voice, incorporated into the city’s updated website in 2012. Now being used for feedback on the city’s Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct policies, the open forum format, as a tool, isn’t as rigorous at the new Virtual City Hall, according to Dugdale.

This week was a soft launch for the new tool with city staff and members of the city’s boards and commissions serving as the testers. But, now it’s time to reach out to residents.

And this month only, the city is offering an incentive to sign up with weekly prizes like two tickets to the San Juan Brewfest on Aug. 23 and a Trails 2000 gift bag. All residents have to do is sign up during the month of August and they’ll be entered into the weekly drawing.

Currently, the site features three questions. Dugdale said they are meant to be a fun way to introduce Virtual City Hall to residents. It’s an opportunity for everyone to get familiar with it and work out any technical bugs that might pop up.

The technical savvy behind the site is a company called Peak Democracy, a nonpartisan company headquartered in Berkeley, Calif., whose mission is to encourage civic engagement and public participation in government.

The price tag for all that civic engagement is $4,050 per year, which includes paying Peak Democracy to monitor the site and handle any possible problems on the back end.

The first real test is likely to be the reauthorization of the 1999 half-cent sales tax, which the City will likely bring to the voters in April 2015. The tax has been used to pay for construction of the Durango Recreation Center and development of the Animas River Trail. But, it sunsets in 2019 and the City is looking to ask voters to reauthorize it for a host of other projects under the Parks and Recreation purview like Lake Nighthorse, the Animas River Corridor Management Plan and the Community Forest Management Plan.

City staff would be able to gauge what projects residents are most interested in spending money on in a way that doesn’t just seek written comments, but rates projects, their importance and keeps the community on the two-way street.

Other possible future topics include Animas River access design, airport terminal alternatives and the STEAM Park.

Dugdale said it’s a recurring theme with City Council, to increase public outreach and engagement. And, one of the council goals adopted after the 2013 elections is to foster civic engagement and democracy.

“We are hoping to engage our citizens to take part in the decisions that affect the community they live and work in,” she said.

Virtual City Hall is an opportunity to do just that, without having to squeeze in that 6 p.m. public meeting.


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