Village Board Special Meeting, 5/24/06 at 4PM

Karin W / 24 May 2006

Edit as needed -- I am too tired to proof and so on.

I made it to the special Village Board meeting. Not too many people did. Aside from the Board members, and Jacci and Virgil, there was Sheila Edmunds, Deb Brooks and me.

I am happy to report there was no rudeness or shouting people down or anything of that nature.

The meeting did start on a sour note. I haven’t seen Tom Gunderson in a few years and hadn’t know how GRUMPY he has become. Mostly everyone else was quite pleasant.

But, the meeting started with George Farenthold asking Nancy Yann about the letters from concerned residents. He had been handed a copy of the letters, printed on light purple paper – and it was, he said, the first he’d seen them, and that he had been checking his box for them almost daily for “nearly a month,” I believe he said. He really put it squarely on Nancy Yann. I don’t know the facts of the case and her explanation wasn’t terribly clear – she was very much on the defensive. But it sounded like “I didn’t have time to copy them until today.” There was also something about first having to make sure it was OK with the letter-writers if she used their names – though I have to say, my letters were there (George commented it was the first time he’d had a letter from me) – and no one asked me if they could use my name. I don’t mind, but the fact is I wasn’t asked.

Several board members were disgruntled because they wouldn’t have time to read them before making decisions about the issues addressed in those letters. This is where Tom showed his serious grumpiness, declaring that he’d read the letters when he had time, but the Board was going to go ahead and make whatever decision they wanted to without reading them, so it didn’t really matter what they had to say – they wouldn’t be read until later. Well, personally, I think that is dead wrong. They had weeks if not a month or more to gather and disseminate and read the opinions of the people who took the trouble to write in and it is just plain wrong for your supposedly representative government to not bother to look at your letters at all, esp. in a place as small as Aurora.

I can say he also declined to look at the sheaf of 19 positive letters Jacci wanted them to see as well.

But, once we got past that, things went along better than I had hoped. Janet Murphy in particular had been getting feedback much along the same lines as several of the things others and I have said. Everyone agreed on the fact that the load time has been a big issue – and Jacci is working on that – I tried it today and can see improvements already.

There was lengthy discussion and back-n-forth on the subject of the focus of the website. Jacci and Virgil still felt that the beauty and attributes of the village should be first and foremost, and they had a lot of figures on how much tax revenue the Village gets from businesses in town. But I think it fair to say that Janet, Ken Zabriskie and Jim Chase all spoke up more in favor of putting government info first – not to get rid of the tourist and commercial info, but to serve the residents first. George was fairly quiet for this talk, Tom grumbled a lot about seeing nothing wrong with using taxpayer money to pay for marketing local businesses.

The most important fact of the night, to me, was that several Board members agreed or commented independently, that the focus of the website should be government info presented in a simple, easy-to-find manner, first and foremost. I probably spoke up 5 times to that effect, and Sheila Edmunds several times also, with anecdotes of the difficulties she had finding local info of that sort. First it sounded like they were going to move the government page (which, in my opinion, desperately needs serious organizational redesign – I said as much) to the top page – certainly I concurred, and Janet and Ken too, Jim Chase muttered something like that, and so did Sheila, but in the end, I THINK what they decided was to keep the sunset picture (nothing wrong with that) as a sort of “splash page, with the Government page second, immediately the next thing.

There was a lot of talk of moving the tourist/commercial site elsewhere – everything from to another website not ending in .us to just a separate section which people could choose to visit if they wish and not if they just want to get their govt. info as easily and quickly as they can.

I did also read from some of the materials I found on guidelines for NYS government websites and I think it made an impression. And I mentioned about doing an environmental scan (seeing what other similar sites and doing and comparing to your peers – i.e. Venice and Genoa and Ledyard, not Ithaca and Skaneateles and Geneva), and doing your homework – both Jim and Tom asked if putting commercial content on an official .us website were illegal and I frankly couldn’t say – I don’t know – but I was able to say they really should have found that out before they went live with their website. Tom didn’t much care to hear that and just replied that they have what they have, the site is there and that’s that – they can edit later if need be.

Sheila and I both made comments about the need to determine your audience and know their needs and capabilities before you design. Janet started the discussion of focus by asking if we all knew what the purpose of this site was supposed to be – attracting tourists to Aurora, or providing government info to the residents.

Sheila also objected to a statement in the contract that indicated that she (Sheila) would be doing a monthly history column – she said no one had spoken to her about it and she is not willing – the thing she loves about retirement is not having to conform to anyone else’s deadlines, to work only when she wants to, etc. Jacci thought she had talked with Sheila about this and apologized and that part is to be taken out – Sheila may possibly agree to do an occasional new piece for the site when she feels so moved.

Nancy Yann brought up one point (aside from the time she responded to George’s questions about why none of the Board members saw our letters before they sat down tonight) – and that was to say that nothing can be posted to the website unless it passes through the proper channels and is approved by the Board – content providers (such as Sheila) can e-mail info to Nancy and she can pass it along to the Board and members of the public have to understand that sometimes this takes time – but that this procedure must be followed even if it means info is delayed.

I don’t think Debbie Brooks said one word the whole time.

At the end, there was a call to vote on whether or not to accept Jacci’s contract for on-going maintenance. I have to say, she charges no more than I do for non-profits – believe me, $30 an hour is a very fair rate. If you went to a firm that did nothing but website design, you’d pay a lot more. There is also a budget cap on the total amount which can be spent (didn’t get that figure, I am afraid), so some ideas people had for expanded content may have to wait until next year. Ken Zabriskie in particular seemed to make the decisive comment that we need to first fix up what we have to make it just right, THEN add more stuff later, as funds allow.

The first few lines of the contract (I didn’t have a copy, so Sheila let me look at hers, but I didn’t take notes and now don’t have a copy in front of me) define the purpose – the way it was written, the first and foremost purpose of the site was to showcase the attributes of the Village and its businesses, etc. There were 3, the second one escapes me, and only when you got to the third one was government info mentioned. The Board re-wrote the purpose, putting the government info first, striking out something vague about education, and otherwise editing and rearranging the priority of the purposes. Then they voted, and agreed to sign, as amended, which they did – on the hand-scribbled copies, with neatly re-typed versions to be supplied later.

George asked for another person to be on the ad hoc subcommittee (now I’ve forgotten its name) for dealing with the website with him, and Janet agreed to do so.

George asked for my contact info and I gave him and Janet my business card.

So, it was grudging in some quarters, and without some measure to determine if the new redesign which will be coming will meet the criteria of the newly re-written purpose of the site, it will be hard to make a case if it doesn’t. But, I feel progress was made towards correcting a bad situation – not the absolute most perfect solution, but a reasonably fair compromise, and with some important facts obviously sinking in where they need to – overall, it was a positive outcome.

If there are any omissions or factual errors in this report they are due to faulty memory – I have made my best effort to give an accurate recollection.

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