As Asheville City Council heads into an important election year, a variety of new local projects are in the works that aim to increase civic engagement.
Local Web development team Patrick Conant and Jesse Michel recently built a new website that’s designed to give online commenters an in-person voice at Council meetings. The prototype site, MyCityCouncil.com, pairs the city’s live video stream of the meetings with a customized live commenting system. They’d also like to enlist a volunteer moderator who would attend the meeting and monitor the online discussion. The moderator could then serve as a voice for those who couldn’t attend in person, asking questions or relaying thoughts to Council from those participating in the online discussion.
“The idea is a natural fit for Asheville – our City Council places a lot of emphasis on community feedback, and our vibrant community members are willing to provide it more often than not,” says Conant, who along with Michel, is a former Xpress staffer. “We’re just trying to make it as simple as possible to get involved with local government.”
Both developers are heavily involved with Code for Asheville, a group of volunteers who use their technical skills to try to improve the relationship between citizens and local government.
Conant is trying to get the word out about the new website in the hopes of attracting interest and participants for a test run. (Those interested in participating as commenters or moderators should email him at email@example.com.)
Meanwhile, members of the Asheville Politics Facebook group have been experimenting in recent months with posting live dispatches from Council meetings as they unfold. A Jan. 27 thread started by one of the group’s moderators, Rich Lee, quickly generated more than 250 responses to the meeting, including observations, opinions, links to related stories and snarky jokes.
The purpose of the live online discussions, says Lee, meshes with the general goal of the 1,108-member Asheville Politics Facebook group. The hope behind both is to help people “overcome the steep learning curve of local government, a barrier to entry to people who aren’t dedicated observers, with constant steady conversation,” he explains. “Eventually you start to learn who the players are, what’s the history. And at the same time, it humanizes these influencers and decision-makers. They’re not this anonymous power over our lives, but our neighbors, people with day jobs and personalities. And they’re participating in the discussion too.”
Lee’s interest in local government is also translating to a plan to run for Council himself, although he says he’s undecided whether he’ll mount a campaign this year or wait.
“It’s just a matter of when,” says Lee, who works as a financial adviser for Edward Jones. “The feeling that Asheville is really at a tipping point in its growth, that the working class, service industry and creative community are coming under more and more pressure from high housing costs and low job opportunity. … It’s really pushing me to consider it sooner rather than later.”
Council member Gordon Smith set a recent precedent for translating online engagement to electoral success in 2009 after raising his public profile as a regular blogger and commentator at the Scrutiny Hooligans website, among other online forums.
In addition to the latest grassroots efforts at increasing engagement, a range of local journalists and others continue to post live dispatches and comments about Council meetings via Twitter using the hashtag #avlgov. And of course, a wealth of local media outlets continues to offer more traditional reports in-print, online and over the airwaves.
Asheville City Council meets next on Friday, Jan. 30, for an all-day retreat to discuss priorities for the year. The meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. in the Banquet Hall of the U.S. Cellular Center and is open to the public.