Friday, October 15, 2010

Just Say No to "Syn"

or Synthetic Turf

In a previous post about the Sept 16 School Building Committee meeting I reported that there was a discussion to include the installation of a new synthetic turf practice field as part of the bid package for the new HS project. Currently, the new HS project includes renovation/ repair of the natural grass practice field since it will likely be damaged during the building construction. At the Sept 16 SBC meeting it was pointed out by co-chair Barkett that the best approach would be to include the synthetic turf field as an “add alternate” to the full project bid package.

Note: “Add alternates” are more expensive project alternatives that can be interchanged if there are project monies available to do so.

At this week’s (10/11/10) Longmeadow School Committee meeting there was an agenda item to discuss support of the installation of a synthetic turf practice field as part of the new LHS building project. Prior to this discussion there were visitor comments by Mary Vogel- past chairperson of the SC who voiced her strong opposition to this proposal. Below is a video with her remarks…



Chairman Armand Wray initiated a discussion about SC support for installation of this synthetic turf if the SBC decides to move forward with this project scope modification and include it with the project bid package. It was clear from Mr. Wray’s remarks that the SBC was looking for a clear commitment by the SC (including a future “rubberstamp” approval) to fully support this proposal.

During the discussion it was pointed out that once the new HS building project is completed, safety, maintenance and operation of a new synthetic turf field will become the full responsibility of the SC. Ms. Jester- a newly elected member of the SC and a member of the SBC stated that she could not support the idea since not enough information had been presented. Ms. Bruns and Ms. DeMarco made similar comments. A motion was made and seconded but it was defeated (3-3) with Wray- Brunette-Weigand in support and Bruns- DeMarco- Jester opposed.

Some additional background info...

A synthetic multi-purpose HS practice field was originally proposed for consideration of CPA funds in 2007 by the Longmeadow Youth Sports Council. A considerable amount of effort was spent preparing this proposal but it was ultimately rejected- mostly on the grounds that it did not meet some of the CPA guidelines. The cost for this project at that time was estimated at $825,000. Here is a link to the full CPA project documentation that was submitted.
CPA Project 2007-2

This latest discussion about installation of a synthetic turf practice field has surfaced because it appears that the our new HS project will cost considerably less than the originally estimated $78 million.- possibly as low as $60 million based upon the recent Wilbraham-Hampden Regional HS project bid.

I expect that our SBC committee and its co-chairs to view any project savings as opportunities for our town to resolve some of our other major infrastructure issues- not as a “pot of gold” that could be spent for new HS options that were not part of the original project scope. I’m sure that we will start hearing the SBC “spin” where $825,000 is only 1% of the total project cost and therefore not a large financial impact or burden on taxpayers.

It will be interesting to see what other “add alternates” will be included with new HS bid package and how many of them are actually implemented.

If we try prioritizing the synthetic turf practice field with our other infrastructure needs (e.g., DPW facility, the two middle schools, roads, water/sewer, etc.) I doubt that it would even show up in a top 10 list.

The SBC has a “fidiciary” responsibility to town residents to build the new high school as originally approved by town voters at the lowest possible cost.

If the bid for our new HS with the original scope and materials selection ends up substantially lower than the originally estimated $78 million, the project spending limit should be reduced appropriately.

Given that the SBC has indicated that the town will receive bids in Spring 2011 timeframe, consideration should be given to formally reduce the allowable project expenditures at the Annual Town Meeting in May.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Transparency Game

In case you missed it, here is Alex Grant's “The Transparency Game” that appeared in last week's edition (10/07/10) of the Longmeadow News (with permission of the author and thanks to the Longmeadow News).
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If there is one value all candidates to the Select Board and the School Committee pay homage to, it is "transparency." Once elected, however, some town politicians act as if their passion for "transparency," openness, and the free flow of information to the public was rhetorical excess. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that "sunlight is the best disinfectant," but for elected town officials, that sunlight is seen as a distracting, harsh glare that takes their attention away from the important matters they need to discuss.

And so it was recently that the Select Board decided to do an offsite "retreat" at the church across the street from its regular meeting room. The explicit purpose of this change in venue was to rid Board members of those pesky cameras that televise their regular board meetings. Board Chair Robert Aseltine thought the retreat was a dandy idea because there could have a "more relaxed" conversation without the cameras. Aseltine noted that the deliberation process is "affected by being on camera." Board member Robert Barkett said that it was his experience that elected officials "tend to speak differently" offsite and that the conversations are "completely different" without the cameras.

Hearing that, curious minds might have wondered, "so what do they discuss when they're off camera?" Or, are the views expressed at their regular meetings so different from their true beliefs? Having piqued our interest, the pro-retreat Board members of Christine Swanson, Aseltine, and Barkett went on to assure the public that this was no retreat of theirs from transparency or the open meeting law. After all, they are literally unable to bar town residents from attending any board meeting, whether styled as a retreat or not. They even went so far as to say that the retreat was really just as open, especially since they would have to post minutes and folks could attend in person (albeit when many are out of town on vacation).

Got that? The retreat, according to the Select Board, was essential to create the privacy necessary to have the candid and "completely different" conversations they needed to have. But, the retreat was also just as open and transparent as any other meeting, even though virtually nobody would ever see it.

Editor's note: There is a web video and meeting "notes" for this August 23 meeting and it was posted on LongmeadowBuzz.  See Select Board Sets FY12 Goals.

At the August 23 retreat, certain Board members voiced support for subcommittees, a structure unfamiliar to the Select Board but very much a part of how the School Committee does business. And now, it seems all but assured that there will be a Finance Subcommittee and an Operations Subcommittee. Board members Mark Gold and Paul Santaniello are opposed.

Most town residents probably view the legislative process of the Select Board as inside baseball, unworthy of attention. However, this subcommittee idea will diminish what the public knows about the budget and other vital town issues. If the School Committee subcommittees are any guide, they will not be televised, their meetings will be mostly unpublicized, and their meeting minutes (if any are kept) will not be readily available. The subcommittees, in turn, will present their findings and recommendations at the regular meetings, and those will be accepted without much discussion.

I wrote about subcommittees last year, and I noted that in July 2009, there had been no meeting minutes of the School's Financial subcommittee posted online since 2007. Those minutes, are now available, but there is nothing posted for the bevy of other School subcommittees. There are five such subcommittees this year, but there are no meeting minutes posted for any of them.

Recently, the School Building Committee just went four months without posting its meeting minutes, and the last posted Select Board meeting minutes are from over three months ago. Meanwhile, Jim Moran, the erstwhile town webmaster who still endeavors to provide information about town events on his own websites, has been refused access to the town's press releases.

All of this points to a trend toward keeping town business more obscure to ordinary voters. This penchant for privacy stems from the belief on the part of some town politicians that our local government would be run more intelligently if insulated from the prying eyes of the public. And make no mistake, by doing the minimum and grudgingly providing information about their affairs online, the Select Board, or any other board, can drastically reduce the amount of attention it receives. The only way to make sure town government is truly open is by holding politicians accountable at the ballot box for their pledges of transparency. Otherwise, the doublespeak will just go on.


Alex J. Grant

Monday, October 11, 2010

Roadmap to a New Website

The Town of Longmeadow Website Task Force is seeking
your input on how to improve the website and other electronic
services offered by the town.  Please click on SURVEY.

This is the message currently being displayed on the homepage at http://www.longmeadow.org/ .

Because I strongly believe that our town needs effective web based communication, I have written two previous articles on technology options for a revamped town website to help provide some direction for the Town Manager's Task Force.

Cost of Technology
Cost of Technology- Part II
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After I posted these articles, I have received a series of critical comments from Alan Dove, a town resident and member of Town Manager’s Website Taskforce stating that I have greatly overstated the difficulty and cost of both the development and maintenance aspects for a new town website.  Below are a few excerpts from his comments...

“As for the "Virtual Town Hall" option, it's a blatant ripoff. Nobody with a clue pays a dime for a content-management system these days. Indeed, the town's current technology service already offers professional installation and maintenance of several open source CMSs, so that should add no cost.”

”You also vastly overstate the need for training the people who will post content. A modern CMS makes posting and editing as easy as putting a comment on a blog page. Anyone who can use a computer can do it.”

“There's no technical reason a completely renovated web site should cost more than a few hundred dollars a year.”
_________________________________________

I have recently surveyed a number of town websites in our region and found that the Amherst’s town website http://www.amherstma.gov/  provides an excellent benchmark for our town to emulate. Amherst has been commended numerous times in the recent past for their excellent delivery of web based services through their town website.

To obtain more information about the Amherst’s town website development, I contacted Kristopher Pacusas, Director of Information Technology for the Town of Amherst and asked him a series of questions. His answers shown below were quite helpful in gaining a better understanding of what it takes to create and operate an effective town government website.
  1. From the link on your website, it appears that www.amherstma.org is using a document management system developed by CivicPlus®. Is that correct?
    [Kris] Yes it is CivicPlus®
    Note: CivicPlus® develops comprehensive websites for cities and towns with over 700 completed projects servicing 26 million people. Their website is: http://www.civicplus.com/
  2. How much did the startup phase including the design of the document management system template and required Amherst employee training cost the town?
    [Kris] We did three websites all at once (http://www.amherstma.gov/, http://www.amherstpd.org/  and http://www.lsse.org/  ) and the total initial cost for setup was $25,000.
  3. How long did it take to get the new website online?
    [Kris] 3 Months
  4. How many town employees are actively involved with the website? Do you have any volunteers to help maintain and update the website?
    [Kris] 25+ and yes. The granular security abilities allow us to delegate the upkeep responsibilities to many departments and staff.
  5. When major navigation changes (new webpages, menu items, forms, etc.) are needed, does CivicPlus® take care of the required html development and website implementation?
    [Kris] No and yes. CivicPlus® will walk you through every step.
  6. Do you have an estimate of how many hours (weekly/ annually) are required to maintain the Amherst website?
    [Kris] This is part of each department's daily routines but it significantly less time overall that what it would take without a web-based content management system.
  7. Is there an annual charge by CivicPlus® to host the Amherst websites and provide you with any needed technical support (e.g., webpage/form modifications)?
    [Kris] The Town of Amherst pays $6,000 annually for maintenance for the three sites and all modules. I suspect your annual cost would be significantly less. The form creation is also built-in to the content management system so we create our own forms regularly at no cost. In fact there are no additional costs over the annual maintenance which includes hosting.
  8. Any additional words of advice?
    [Kris] I’ve done a lot of research and spent a lot of time looking at every system on the market and after two years of use there is basically no comparison to CivicPlus®. Let me know if I can be of more help, good luck!
www.amherstma.gov/
Amherst Town Government

Leisure Services and Supplemental Education
ala Longmeadow Parks/ Recreation

www.amherstpd.org
Amherst Police Department

As Kris mentioned in one of his answers, all three of the above websites were included with their town government website development and have a single "look and feel".  The Jones Library in Amherst has a separate website (www.joneslibrary.org/) with a different look and feel and is connected via an "external" link on the Amherst town government website.

The Longmeadow Parks and Recreation Dept has its own website (www.lprd.net).  Perhaps the LPRD's website could be incorporated into Longmeadow's new town website and the annual maintenance savings used to fund it.

Browsing through Amherst's town website I found some features that should be considered for the new Longmeadow website.
I would recommend that Longmeadow residents visit Amherst’s town websites before they fill out the survey so that they can provide some useful information to the Town Managers Website TaskForce.