Wednesday, November 26, 2014
The Westport Board of Selectmen today approved a $9,800 four-year agreement to create a “Virtual Westport” online that will enable a wider gathering of opinions on such controversial issues as improvements at Compo Beach.
First Selectman Jim Marpe acknowledged the initiative with Socialmentum LLC, a Kansas City startup doing business as Mindmixer was his idea and would be controlled by his office.
“I view that (questions as to who would govern the project) as my responsibility, quite frankly,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is an initiative coming from the selectman’s office.”
“I look at this as a relatively low cost investment in a sense experimenting with virtual government, if you will, or at least a feedback mechanism,” Marpe added.
Selectman Helen Garten asked how the project –- which would include the ability to conduct polls—would differ from opinion gathering as represented on a local blog, 06880, run by author and Staples soccer coach Dan Woog. The Compo issue has drawn heated opposition on the blog.
“First of all, we control it,” said Dewey Loselle, the town’s operations director, who presented the project to the board.
Marpe added: “Yes, a lot of people look at Dan Woog’s blog, but I must tell you he establishes some point of view or whatever and people react to it. If you look at that over time, you realize that it’s more or less the same relatively small set of people reacting to it.”
He pointed to a public opinion survey by the Downtown Steering Committee, which he said had a much wider response.
Garten, who eventually voted with her colleagues to approve the project, said, “I ‘d like to see a better plan what this is and how we are going to use it.”
Marpe said the initiative was “certainly no attempt” to diminish the role of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) or any other elected and appointed bodies who also gather data and information.
“I think the opportunity here is to broaden interest in topics that often have a narrow audience only because at first blush they appear to be fairly arcane and often people are in my experience surprised -– where did that come from?,” he said.
“Because we have less and less media coverage of any substance of what goes on, this is perhaps a different way to put an idea out there that can be put out in a form that describes all the dimensions.
“Again, one of the challenges of blog communications is that bloggers are the first to say we are not reporters, we are not obligated to have all the facts. So I think this challenges us to format questions in a way that tries to put the reality out there and all the dimensions of it.”
Garten responded that “government are not reporters either, and that’s where my sticking point is. Our reality may not necessarily be the reality as viewed by an independent source.
“The advantage of an independent press is that they truly are independent. No one here is, just like no blogger is. So I’d be very loathe to take the result of a poll and say that’s the view of the people.”
In response to a question from Selectman Avi Kaner, Loselle said the funds are coming from the already approved budget of the Information Technology Department.
He said the town had inserted a clause in the contract providing that if the funding bodies do not approve funds in future years, the town could get out of the contract.
Kaner said this was entering “somewhat unchartered territory” but that he would support the effort because “it provides another way for citizens of Westport to communicate with us.”
He suggested the project if it works well eventually could be shared with the Board of Education.
Posted 11/26/14 at 11:24 AM Permalink