Your Local Government On The Web:
Don't Expect A Whole Lot Just Yet
By MARK BEARDSLEY
"Visit our web site" has
become a staple of corporate advertising. Every large firm and
many a small company has gone to the Internet to tout their business.
Government has followed. States, cities and counties all have
web pages on the Internet. School systems, hospitals and chambers
of commerce have joined the parade, developing pages aimed at
Local government is no exception. Commerce has a web site. The
Commerce and Banks County school systems have web pages, BJC
Medical Center is on the web, and the local chambers of commerce
have developed web pages on the Internet.
But it's still a new medium for promotion, and the web pages
reflect a struggle to find and keep pertinent information on
the site. Most of the emphasis appears to be aimed at visitors
from afar, while little information of interest to the current
resident is available. Pages appear to be seldom updated; local
residents cannot use the Internet to get an agenda for a public
meeting, to find out zoning issues on the table, or to get details
on recently passed ordinances, for example.
Often the information is outdated, like the Commerce city web
site, which contains a calendar that ends in April 1999. Sometimes
information is just wrong; the Banks County web page claims the
county has a median annual household income of more than $42,000.
Following is a completely subjective review of four local web
The city of Commerce web site inspires the question: why bother?
As of July 1, the quarter calendar ran from February through
April, and very little of that. A citizen could not find, for
example, meeting dates, much less agendas, for the DDA, city
council, library board, planning commission, civic center and
tourism authority all groups that manage aspects of the
The "Economic Development" site boasts of the 114-acre
industrial park, but does not mention it is virtually full; the
page suggests wrongly that taxes are higher inside the city limits
than outside (the reverse is true); and the advertisement of
"meticulously restored downtown buildings" is quite
The good news, according to Jan Nelson, executive director of
the DDA, is that the web page will soon be re-built.
"Currently, nobody is updating it, because it is being shifted
over to the city (from the DDA)," she reports. The page
was created by a consulting firm, and Nelson said she cannot
update the information. That is expected to change in the near
The best thing that can be said about the Commerce web site is
that it can be built upon.
The web site of the Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce is
also in transition, hopefully for the better. It has a weak home
page which as of July 1 contained a copy of the resolution passed
by the chamber's board of directors supporting a referendum on
a special purpose local option sales tax, even though the referendum
has not been called, the use of the money has not been decided
and the distribution has not been determined.
The visitor can click on areas for county contacts, economy,
history, recreation and schools. Therein is the largest problem.
The County Contacts page is just a list of phone numbers, including
those for the chamber, BJC Medical Center, the health department,
the county recreation department, the county courthouse and each
of the cities except Talmo.
There is a separate page for "Water & Sewer," which,
strangely, leads off with solid waste disposal. Information on
water and sewer capacities is outdated or missing. The list of
public utility phone numbers is ill-organized, suggesting that
water and sewer service is available only from the Jackson County
Water & Sewerage Authority, and the section on law enforcement
notes that while the sheriff's department offers full-time protection,
Commerce, Jefferson, Arcade, Braselton, Hoschton and Maysville
"provide police protection on a more limited scale."
With 16 uniformed officers under his command, Commerce Police
Chief George Grimes might take exception.
The county history section is complete, but the "economy"
section is very limited, listing population, building permits
and taxable sales, though the latter stops at 1995.
The section on recreation is devoted mostly to Pro Cheer Training
Center, which suggests cheerleading is the premiere recreational
activity in Jackson County. The only "current facilities"
listed are Lamar Murphy Park and the Gordon Street Regional Evening
School. Maybe in the upgrade, the web site will mention the county
recreation program and the Commerce recreation program, Hurricane
Shoals Park, public pools in Jefferson and Commerce, Deer Trail
Country Club, Eagle Greens at Sandy Creek....
In its section on schools, the chamber web page offers little
more. It provides the name and phone number of each school in
the county and each library, though it offers a "Library
of Nicholson" at 677-3167, which is a Homer number. The
page provides a link to Commerce Middle School, which offers
almost no information, another to West Jackson Middle School,
which is also useless, and a third link to Maysville Elementary
School, which is reasonably comprehensive.
While the chamber's web site is very lacking, the organization
recognizes the problem and is attempting to deal with it. The
chamber has a contract with a company to sell ads on the web
page, but the staff is on its own to develop the page itself.
Part of the problem, says administrative assistant Elizabeth
McDonald, is finding the time.
The Banks County Chamber of Commerce has one of the best local
web pages. Each page has a photo of some landmark or event pertinent
to the page. The home page lists important people and their addresses
and phone numbers, plus sub-categories of things to do, lodging,
calendar of events, history/historical points, community overview,
government, an attractive map, other links and a means by which
to e-mail the county.
The page on lodging lists all motels, campgrounds and a bed and
breakfast, along with phone and fax numbers. The "things
to do" section is a bit limited, but is well done. The 12-month
calendar is excellent, although dominated by events at the Atlanta
Dragway. The links cover Alltel, Days Inn, Gainesville College,
the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade & Tourism, Georgia
Power, Jackson EMC, Lanier Tech, Mt. Vernon Mills, Ramada Inn,
Regions Bank, Banks County High School and Tanger Factory Stores.
The government page even lists meeting times and dates for the
county commissioners, industrial development authority and planning
BJC Medical Center's web page, still under construction, is also
one of the stronger web sites for a local public agency, but
with a $24 million budget, the facility should be able to afford
the expertise to put together a first class web page.
The page is still under construction, and on my computer took
forever to download. It lists the entire staff and provides notification
of all job openings (there are plenty). Perhaps the most interesting
section, "Stories," is still under construction. We
can assume these will be stories from grateful patients past
and present rather than humorous anecdotes about operations that
The Commerce School System web site is still under construction,
according to Assistant Superintendent Dennis McWilliams. It will
contain the school calendar, athletic schedules, information
on standardized test scores, photos from each school, biographies
of school board members and more, McWilliams promises.
Now to brag, er, report, on our own web page. The web page for
MainStreet News is very comprehensive, thanks to Scott Buffington.
There one can access each of the organization's four newspapers,
get the most important news stories, and read the opinions, buy
classified ads, check the local weather forecast and contact
a host of state and federal representatives.
You will find a world of links to e-mail any of your legislators,
state or national, explore their voting records, and look at
more than 30 sites for statistics, opinions, news, a phone directory
and even an on-line Bible.
The major shortcoming of the page is that it archives the editorials
and columns. Frankly, it is hard to imagine that anyone would
want to find out what my column was about Feb. 15, 1998. They
might, however, want to follow the progress of construction of
the Bear Creek reservoir, keep updated on zoning issues, look
back over past county commission or city council meetings, or
follow high-profile criminal cases. Some of those stories are
available. More could be. Still, with no objectivity at all,
it's a fine web page.
Overall, the use of the web page by public institutions is in
its infancy. As the use of the web grows, the web pages will
provide more useful information and less fluff aimed at making
the institution look good. The web pages will offer important,
up-to-date information about not just what the outside world
might want to know, but also about what the local residents who
depend on these institutions need to know. If the Weather Channel
can provide continuous updates on the weather for the entire
world, school boards, cities and counties can provide up-to-date
information about meeting agendas, board decisions, test scores,
tax matters and other issues important to the people who, ultimately,
fund the web pages.
Keep checking these pages or http://www.mainstreetnews.com
and we'll keep you posted on how your tax dollars are being put
to use on the web.