Automatic for the People

In the old days (like the 1990s, say) if you wanted to see what your city council was doing or look up your property lines and taxes, you had to drive down to City Hall or the courthouse and wait while clerks dug up the files.

The Web sites of local cities and Jackson County have since taken a big bite out of that hassle and reduced the time, manpower and paper used to handle routine information and transactions.

Leaping ahead of the pack, the city of Ashland has posted virtually everything on its Web site. You can watch streaming video of council meetings and read information on future hearings and staff analyses. After the meeting, the minutes and video are there for you to consult the next day and years from now.

In addition, you can read the city charter, peruse all city ordinances, learn the rules about planning, view all reports, deeds and city contracts, catch up on city news, e-mail council or commission members, pay your utility bill, sign up for parks and recreation classes, apply for city jobs and subscribe to new city postings, which will be e-mailed to you.

"The goal is to make public records as accessible as we can and to save desk time and taxpayer money," says City Recorder Barbara Christensen, who pioneered Ashland's system and won the First Freedom Award from the Oregon Society of Professional Journalists in 2005 for her efforts to preserve and strengthen First Amendment rights. "It takes quite a bit of time to find a record in the old way."

Perhaps the most "whiz bang" feature of online local government is Jackson County's Property Data & Maps, also called Front Desk, where you link in from the home page, www.co.jackson.or.us.

You'll find yourself descending on your town, then your neighborhood, then your home itself (or just enter your address or tax lot number) to look at your plat of land as seen from satellite or on a map.

You can then surf around your property file, learning its assessed value, sale history, tax history, planning and zoning actions — even the plumbing and electrical permits obtained.

"It's by far the most popular and most powerful portal on the county Web site," says Mark Decker, the county's information technology officer. "It saves a lot of tax money and is more convenient. It eliminates so many trips to the counter, standing there and asking questions. It saves tax money, gas and staff time."

Jackson County also provides live streaming video of Board of Commissioners meetings and is in the process of doing the same for all committees, says Decker.

You can also subscribe to a digest of new entries on the Web site — or just part of it — including new job postings, requests for proposals, projects, events and many other features, Decker notes, so you don't have to surf the entire site daily.

"It's absolutely amazing, the changes the Internet has brought. It's ubiquitous and we've come to be dependent on Internet access for almost everything," says Decker. "The amount of information has grown exponentially. In government, it's the most cost-efficient means of getting information out to the public."

Parts of the neural net are still locked in the 20th century, with many areas of the county able to access it only by satellite or glacially-paced dial-up, but universal high-speed Internet is a priority of the new federal administration, so in coming years everyone should be on board, he says.

There are still folks for whom the Internet is a foreign land, especially among seniors, but that, too, will change as everyone gets the basic skills, he adds.

On the county's Web site, you'll find voting results, today's air quality, road conditions, who's in the county jail (with mug shot), how to get a marriage license and even today's stream flows and lake levels.

Web sites of other cities offer many of the same features. In addition to all the usual agendas, minutes, ordinances and instructions about how to interact with departments, the city of Medford's site lets you check the status of your building inspection and even reschedule the date. You can search business licenses, pay a traffic ticket and apply to serve on city commissions.

Medford posts video of meetings, serves subscribers, invites comments and ratings of services, posts flood information (and what to pack for emergencies) — and has been named one of the Top 10 Digital Cities for its size, according to Medford IT Director Doug Townsend.

Tiny Talent five years ago won the software for its Web site in a contest put on by the League of Oregon Cities, and its site has proved very popular, getting thousands of hits a month, says Cheryl Nicolay, executive assistant to the city manager.

"Any form, application or contract information you need is there, all the city ordinances, the minutes of every meeting and 'The Flash' (monthly newspaper of Talent)," says Nicolay.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.


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