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Commission finally joins0th (oops) 21st century

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By GREG HAMILTON, Citrus Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 16, 2003

Giving your favorite county commissioner a piece of your mind just got a lot easier.

At long last, the commissioners have caught up to one of the technological wonders of the 21st century: e-mail. Can indoor plumbing be far behind?

At the urging of Commissioner Vicki Phillips, the county has set up e-mail addresses for the five commissioners. So what if it's only about a decade or so behind the rest of the world? Finally, the commissioners are wired and can experience the joy of spam.

Some of the commissioners have been reluctant to embrace the tools of the modern office, such as computers that are actually connected to the Internet. Mention the Web to them and they suggest that you call building maintenance to have them brushed out.

Their constituents, however, are becoming more comfortable with and adept at the new technologies. Many go online to do their own research of state laws, campaign finance reports and a host of other public records that are now only a few keystrokes away. This has led to a much more informed electorate and has made it harder for those officials inclined to play games with the public to cover their tracks by citing inapplicable statutes and rules.

Interested citizens now simply look it up themselves and unmask those shell games.

That puts them a leg up on their commissioners, who have computer terminals on their county office desks that are little more than word processors. If commissioners want to research, say, a property record or perhaps some pending legislation in Tallahassee, they must either get some other county employee to do it for them or use their home computer, if they happen to own one.

This makes for inefficiencies that Phillips hopes to have addressed when the commissioners and their staff move into the county courthouse in the coming months. One proposal is to have terminals, with Internet access, set up at each commissioner's seat in the commission chambers. This way, they could access documents during board discussions.

Imagine that, commissioners having relevant information at their fingertips as they make important decisions. Why, certain commissioners might even be tempted to look up the county's comprehensive plan (most of which is online now). This way, they'll know exactly which section their land-use decisions are violating.

The real fun, however, will come when the public starts sending their thoughts via e-mail. A good many citizens who otherwise might not bother communicating with their elected officials because of the inconvenience of making a phone call (leaving a message and hoping for a call back) or using the good ol' snail mail (37 cents and a few days' lag time) can now bombard the commissioners in real time.

Residents can watch the weekly commission meetings at home and fire off e-mails on each agenda item, as well as those special "surprise" issues that sometimes pop up during the meetings. Talk about interactive government!

The e-mails, by the way, go to the commission staff first, where they are printed out and placed in the commissioner's file. Like all correspondence with the county, e-mails are public record, so they must be made available to nosey reporters and any other member of the public. Commissioners won't be able to violate the Sunshine Law by sending secret e-mails to each other (not that any of our commissioners would ever dream of communicating in private with each other or certain senior staffers).

After his recent re-election, Commissioner Chairman Jim Fowler said he wanted to improve communications with citizens of the county. Here's your chance to take him up on that offer. His e-mail address is:

The other addresses follow the same basic structure: and

And remember, writing a message ENTIRELY IN CAPITAL LETTERS, while an effective way to release tension and to create emphasis, is considered poor e-mail etiquette.

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