League of Cities Links Members

Realizing their old BBS was no longer effective, the League of California Cities launched a state-of-the-art Web site.

by / December 31, 1996 0
None of Oak Street's residents knew who owned the rusty old pickup truck that had been sitting on their street for a month. Every day, the Northern California city's transportation department got a few calls asking when the eyesore would be removed. But, since the city didn't have an ordinance regarding the removal of abandoned vehicles, the director of transportation was at a loss. He didn't like the idea of writing an ordinance from scratch, so he logged on to the League of California Cities' new Citylink 2000 Web site and "borrowed" an ordinance from a city 500 miles away.

The League of California Cities is an organization made up of city officials working together to exchange information, combine resources and influence policy decisions at all levels of government. One of the ways they do this is through an online system that provides information and helps city governments work together.

For the past seven years, the league has offered a dial-up, proprietary BBS, called Citylink, to its members. This service featured legislative tracking, databases and bulletin boards for discussions.

There were a few problems with the system, however. According to Michael Coleman, principal policy analyst for Sacramento, the old system was cumbersome. "Since the system had no graphical user interface and was strongly menu-driven, the majority of those who were using it were those who have the patience and the ability to surpass these hurdles," he explained. This tended to leave out a lot of city officials that the league was trying to reach. The price of the program was also prohibitive, at $600 per subscriber per year.

A NEW SOLUTION
Realizing the time had come for a radical change, the league brought together a group of Internet-savvy executives from cities all across the state and asked them for help in meeting two goals -- creating an online system that was both accessible and more user-friendly to city officials, and one that was World Wide Web-based.

So was born Citylink 2000 -- a Web site "for greater interaction between city officials that will really help them serve the citizens better and allow city officials to learn from one another," said Coleman.

The Citylink 2000 site will feature two "sides" -- one public side to feature information about the league; and one legislative side, which will be password-protected for access by league members only. Scott Freeland, Citylink 2000 project manager, sees the site as a big step toward helping city governments work together more easily.

As of November, league members were able to:

Study and track legislation -- allowing members to sort and create reports on different bills.
Maintain active bill files for any particular legislation they are tracking.
Post questions and answers to an online bulletin board.
According to Freeland, future plans for further expansion on the site include:

Free Internet-based calls to the league to help cities save money.
Streaming audio from the league's lobbyists updating cities on active legislative issues.
Sessions from the league's conferences available via RealAudio.
Training via videoconferencing on the site (when the technology is available).
According to Freeland, a big advantage of the new system is that multiple users can access the same password simultaneously. The old system only allowed the password to be used in one place, which kept a large number of interested city officials from using the program. Now all anyone needs is
Web access.

With the new system, cities are not required to face the high cost associated with the old system. "In the past," Freeland explained, "there has always been a substantial cost involved. But Citylink 2000 is available for nothing but the cost of Internet access." Coleman declared that "the league is democratizing the Internet with this project. By bringing down the cost barrier, even the smallest towns can take advantage of it."

Brian Moura, advisory board member and assistant city manager and finance director for the city of San Carlos, said that the program will actually save the league money. "Eventually," he said, "every piece of paper that the league faxes or mails out will be available on the Web site. They can potentially save thousands in postage and telephone charges alone."

READY AND WIRED
One concern the league faced when deciding on this project was whether or not California cities were really ready -- and wired -- for such an undertaking. However, when the league conducted a survey to test the level of technology available to its members, they found that 58 percent had Internet access and more than 34 percent of those without access planned to have it in the next six to twelve months, Freeland said.

"There are many people in city government who are already using the Internet as a research tool," Moura added. "The biggest challenge that the league will face is to retrain everyone on the new system." He said that based on past experiences -- when the league trained people how to use the old system -- they should have no problem overcoming this hurdle. "It will be a big task," he commented. "But it will definitely be worth it."

For those cities who already have Internet access, the training may involve as little effort as entering the URL, typing in the password and taking off. But for others, more extensive training -- such as seminars and in-depth training sessions -- will be necessary. For those cities without Internet access, the league is screening some of the larger Internet service providers to offer cities references for good, reliable service providers.

Currently, the old Citylink system has about 200 subscribers, and these will be the first to move over onto the new system. The old system will stay online until the end of the year. "We want to be sensitive to our clients' needs and give them the first opportunity to change," Freeland explained. Once they are set up, the league will begin to court the approximately 270 cities that are not yet on the project. Their aim is to have everyone online by the start of the legislative session.

A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
As both a potential user of the system and a member of the advisory board, Wally Bobkiewicz, telecommunications bureau manager for the city of Long Beach, is very enthusiastic about the project. "The league is taking a really positive step with this technology," he said. "They are at the forefront with a creative way to reach California's cities. This will make city officials more effective because they will have more access to information." He said that this will be especially helpful to cities such as Long Beach, where there are many people who need access to the information. "Departments are interested in legislation and tracking legislation that affects their aspect of municipal government. Citylink 2000 makes it easier for them to reach that information.

"If any other city or state associations are looking to do this," Bobkiewicz said, "just jump in and don't let the technology overwhelm you with all its bells and whistles. Follow the league's example and come up with an application that is simple, straightforward and gets the job done."

For more information, the league's Web address is:

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[January Table of Contents]

SOLUTION SUMMARY
PROBLEM/SITUATION: Older online system to help share city government information was expensive and had no graphical user interface.

SOLUTION: New Web-based online system that is both more accessible and user-friendly to city officials.

JURISDICTION: City of San Carlos, Calif.; city of Long Beach, Calif.

CONTACT: Scott Freeland, Citylink 2000 project manager, 916/658-8200.