Municipal websites serve as the digital town hall

HILLTOWNS — At its December board meeting, a resident of Knox took advantage of the public-comment period to address an issue that had been bothering him for months: When will the town make improvements to its website?

Jonathan Lane, who designs websites as part of his online marketing business, cited dead links, an “inconsistent style,” and large downloads that aren’t clearly labeled as some of the issues he sees with the Knox website.

“Our website isn’t perfect,” responded Town Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis, who contrasted the town of Knox with computer company IBM “but it’s not bad.”

“IBM has a completely different audience than Knox has,” Lane told The Enterprise after the meeting. “Knox has residents that don’t have access to high-speed Internet and who don’t have unlimited data plans, which needs to be taken into account. 

“The Knox website’s primary audience includes residents both new and old, people in neighboring towns, people visiting Knox, and people considering moving to Knox,” Lane continued. “A poor experience on our town’s website could potentially have a negative effect on the town.”

He expanded on the issues he saw with Knox’s website, including lack of information, a difficult-to-find contact page, and files that can’t be viewed unless they’re downloaded.

“At the end of the day, what’s most important is that the website meets the needs of the users, including those with impairments,” Lane said.

In the digital age, websites have become something of a second town hall. Rather than drive five miles to pick up a building-permit application, residents can simply go to their town’s webpage, identify the appropriate links, and download the application from the comfort of their homes. 

They can even find the background information they need to complete the application, or answers to questions of a different matter — but that all depends on the town.

Even a cursory glance at the websites of Knox, Rensselaerville, Berne, and Westerlo show radical variation in layout, style, and features, especially when compared to the websites of their much larger neighbors, Guilderland and New Scotland. 

Town websites are not required by law, and there are no regulations guiding towns in designing their websites. Instead, they rely on common sense and the insights of people like Matthew Turcotte, who founded North Shore Solutions, a company that specializes in municipal websites and designed Knox’s earlier in the decade.

“A good website can make things easier for a town,” said Turcotte, who founded North Shore Solutions “It can cut down on phone calls and foot traffic.”

But, he said, it all comes down to budget.

“We can set it up a number of different ways … We try to meet the municipality where they’re at,” Turcotte explained.

He likened building a website to building a house, where customization can be required down to the last bolt, or, instead, there can be a reliance on “cookie-cutter” frameworks.

“We usually look at the municipality and what information they’re trying to convey,” Turcotte said, “and they’re usually pretty similar … The big thing is transparency.”

For Turcotte, transparency means providing all the information residents need — for example, on meeting schedules, agendas, and legal notices — in well-organized fashion.

But in small towns with meager budgets, once a website is designed, its maintenance typically falls into the hands of the town clerk, an elected official whose duties are only recently transitioning from analogue to digital.

“[Some sites] have information but it’s all outdated,” Turcotte said, “and it’s usually by a lot.”

He explained that the people managing the sites sometimes don’t have the skills necessary to keep the sites updated and clean.

“The way they’re built, they can be a little cumbersome,” Turcotte said.

The town clerks of Knox, Westerlo, and Rensselaerville did not respond to requests for comment. Anita Clayton, the town clerk of Berne, declined the opportunity. 

Turcotte explained that the town of Knox is primarily responsible for the upkeep of its site, but that its contract with North Shore Solutions allows for as-needed consultations.

“They come to us periodically,” he said.

And, in Knox’s case, Turcotte said the back-end of the website was designed to be user-friendly, allowing for easy creation of web pages, embedded videos, and other features common on municipal sites.

“A website’s never done,” Turcotte said. “It should be something that’s growing and evolving.”

To wit, as more and more people acquire smartphones and tablets, the need for mobile-friendly sites is increasing. Turcotte said that 40 to 50 percent of all web traffic is from mobile devices.

Both Knox and Berne have optimization for mobile sites, while Rensselaerville and Westerlo do not. 

“Mobile responsiveness is really big,” Turcotte said.

More Hilltowns News

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  • Esports, or competitive video gaming, is a $1 billion dollar industry that Berne-Knox-Westerlo teacher William Dergosits wants to bring to the school. He says it may open doors for students academically, professionally, and socially — especially for those in what he calls the “hidden demographic.” 

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