Online initiatives aim to increase engagement with Asheville Council

This image is the header of a new website,, which aims to increase local engagement with Asheville City Council.

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,, 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

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.


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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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3 thoughts on “Online initiatives aim to increase engagement with Asheville Council

  1. Grant Millin

    On a trust-building factor it’s disappointing to see folks like Patrick start talking about GOV-public online engagement when the rest of us have been doing so for years and yet go without any recognition for our troubles. Along with seeking Code for Asheville buy-in for my alternative, I met with the mayor and Gary Jackson on my Open Strategic Innovation for Communities (OSIC) solution. I feel Jonathan Feldman, COA IT manager and a Code for Asheville player, was least interested in my OSIC solution.

    The ‘ombud’ or ‘moderator’ role Patrick Conant mentions is something I worked out and shared with people like Vice Mayor Hunt many, many months ago. I first started talking about a new community Open Strategic Innovation approach in 2011. I’m pretty sure I’ve come to MX more than once with related story ideas. Indeed, very recently I shared my IEI Spaces Challenge story with Margaret Williams and Jake both:

    The Code for Asheville online community is called Open Asheville and I shared openly with them. When an innovation is seen as a failure, others try to look at any winning elements and build on it. Patrick Conant and Rich Lee probably saw no value in what I was doing, or just wanted to do things their way.

    There’s no patent on open innovation principles, strategy, or the term community. The difference is education and strategy. Also an understanding that these ‘government innovation’ and ‘community innovation’ solutions need trust as a baseline feature is critical. Yet a follow-up approach that is biased towards serving the public trust instead of just sending around comments, combined with a professional approach to getting to action and strategic innovation, is equally or more critical.

    That’s the value I see in strategic innovation, and it’s not really about software code. I happened to have done a great deal of research to lock onto the tools behind OSIC, but the work can be done with paper and pen if needed. It is about upgrading human capabilities for working with our wicked and not so wicked but urgent civilization challenges. And it’s not volunteer work. This kind of work is far too valuable and existing government-public collaboration platforms to weak or overpriced to expect someone to do the work for free. I envision many jobs for many strategic outcomes for many communities.

    I’m still not giving up on are the innovation and opportunity ecosystem principles I tried to get Mayor Manheimer and Gary Jackson interested in: I’ve shared this model in the Asheville Politics Facebook Group and on my own FB Pages. It’s on my website. Also in the case of open innovation and innovation ecosystem principles there is no patent.

    It’s just amazing to see all the untapped potential going to waste while burgeoning seen and unseen unmet needs overwhelm this town and its people.

    I posted to the Asheville Politics Facebook group why OSIC was needed several weeks ago. I asked for support for my IEI Spaces Challenge submission and that of Maria Wise’s.

    I cover the ‘community learning’ aspect Rich Lee mentions in the attached MX article as knowledge management, or a solution to ‘community memory gaps’. For example there’s a Citizen-Times story this week titled “Just how big will Asheville get?” Incredibly John Boyle fails to make any reference to the findings of GroWNC, a $4 million Federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities program that analyzed multiple local community factors, but made the core program findings relate to future land use scenarios. There’s an online tool there as well but I doubt it gets much use.

    Rework, or ‘reinventing the wheel’, is a classic community resources challenge. People need to grasp what’s in it for them in order to get buy-in on new strategy skills and tools. I completely agree we need to get strategy right at this point in history. I say there’s a laundry list of ways government can engage better with communities at this point. I wish the Patrick Conant-Rich Lee initiative all the best. I’m taking a different approach. Capturing live government meeting activity is just a one element of Sustain Asheville and OSIC:

    The worst thing a person can do in Asheville is seem like a whiner who is ‘disgruntled’ and has no real solutions. My family’s record and mine in adding value to this town stands clear. I just felt like laying down my interpretation of working with the Code for Asheville people. I agree Code for America and Code for Asheville can produce useful code solutions in some cases. But as the founder and manager of a sophisticated innovation collective once told me during my OSIC research, “It’s not just about the code.” For example The Institute for Emerging Issues spent “under $1,000,000” on their online Commons solution. Yet only a tiny fraction of the North Carolina citizenry uses Commons after almost two years since it launched.

    It’s not just about the code. It’s about trust. It’s about New Game Strategies for our people at the base of the economic pyramid who needed real solutions today… and 35 years ago instead of getting burdened with Reaganomics. It’s about a sustainability platform that keeps our necessary environmental services healthy while we get to ‘Beyond GDP’ economics somehow, but soon and with a fresh approach to community strategy and developing a vibrant, honest IOE.

    Ideally MyCityCouncil and InnovoGraph OSIC would work in concert fulfilling different objectives yet developing solutions through these many connected activities. But I suppose that’s too simple.

  2. bsummers

    Speaking of “barriers to entry” and “anonymous power over our lives”, is no one bothered by the fact that if you want to participate in what is becoming the new venue for public discourse on politics, etc., you have to give your personal information to this creepy private corporation? If you’re not a Facebook member, you can’t participate. And that includes most online newspaper commenting these days. Try commenting on an AC-T story if you’re not a FB member.

    Facebook’s own numbers show they are unlikely to break 50% of the US population, so right off the bat you’re consigning the majority to not have access to the political discussions that shape our lives. The very young, the old, and almost certainly, the poor are least represented, not to mention those of us who have a bias against submitting to corporate intrusions in our lives.

    Is it a coincidence that the public discourse is increasingly dominated by a demographic that is more likely to let corporations do whatever they want?

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