Today, the City of Virginia Beach launched a new Web-based citizen engagement tool called Virtual Town Hall that will help the city gather residents’ opinions about city projects and initiatives, with the goal of incorporating this feedback in the decision-making process.
This new program allows citizens to indicate budgetary priorities, share opinions and review what fellow residents are saying about current issues.
The city will post approximately two or three different topics for feedback each month. Questions may range from desired features at a proposed park to feedback on possible roadway improvements.
“We suspect that a lot of people care about the decisions the city makes — those that affect municipal service delivery and quality of life,” said Catheryn Whitesell, director of the city’s budget office. “However, we’ve noticed that too often only a very small fraction of the 441,000 people who live here actually attend City Council meetings and public information forums. This may be the case for a number of different reasons, but the bottom line is that we need to make it easier and more convenient for people to participate in local government, and that is the driving force behind Virtual Town Hall.”
Research indicates that limited participation at City Council meetings and other public forums is not due to apathy, but inconvenience and, in some cases, fear of public speaking. Some people face certain barriers to participation — among them, transportation, work conflicts, childcare and other activities that can make attending public meetings difficult. Virtual Town Hall alleviates these concerns.
Topic forums will be available on the VBgov.com website for a minimum of two weeks, so users can respond at their convenience. The Virtual Town Hall platform is also optimized for mobile devices so participants can respond using a smartphone.
Once registered, users will automatically receive an email informing them when new forums are launched, or they can choose to receive text alerts instead by texting the word “subscribe” to 757-215-4841.
A primary goal of Virtual Town Hall is to provide a fair and civil means for citizens to share their thoughts. Comments are monitored for profanity, personal attacks and spam. The city also recognizes that blogs are sometimes dominated by bullies that post multiple comments, but Virtual Town Hall authenticates registrants and each person is only allowed one comment per topic to avoid having a handful of people argue back and forth or dominate the conversation.
The first Virtual Town Hall topic requests input on a new recreational facility for dogs at Bayville Farms Park. Due to growing demand for off-leash dog areas in our city, Virginia Beach Parks & Recreation is in the process of planning improvements to the 68-acre park in Northwest Virginia Beach. The city would like to know:
“Should the dog park design at Bayville Farms Park follow the current design standard of one area for all dogs, or would you prefer separate areas for large and small dogs?”
All users must register in order to participate in the topic forum. When posting their first statement, participants will be asked for their name, email and home addresses. This information is used to authenticate participants and then identify statements from residents in and near Virginia Beach. Anyone, even individuals who do not live in Virginia Beach, may share their opinions in the topic forums, but it is helpful for other residents and the city to know where comments are originating.
Broad participation helps the city make better decisions and create stronger communities, so the city encourages users to tell friends, family and neighbors about Virtual Town Hall.
For more information, visit www.VBgov.com/VirtualTownHall.