2016-09-08 / Front Page

Biddeford rolls out online newsletter

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The city launched a weekly online newsletter last week as a means to help get information

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In an effort to became more transparent, city officials in Biddeford now post all Freedom of Access Act requests on the city website, www.biddefordmaine.org. To see them, click on the “News/Media Center” tab at the left of the homepage. make it easier to navigate.

“The website has grown from what it has been used for and we’re always adding more and more information to out to residents about city business. The Biddeford Beat is accessible both on the city’s website or by email subscription.

“There’s a lot going on and a lot of choices for people (to get information from), but we’re trying to find another avenue to get information out about city government,” said City Manager James Bennett. “It’s not the magic solution to get information out, but it’s another avenue.”

Bennett said the city will reorganize its website soon to what it was when it was first put together,” Bennett said. “We’re trying to make it a little easier.”

In the inaugural issue of Biddeford Beat, Mayor Alan Casavant said he hopes the publication will not only help get information out to the public, but also to recognize city employees.

“So often we neglect the hard work of our employees which happens behind the scenes and the passion our people bring forth,” Casavant wrote. “Combining the hard work and the passion, the newsletter is born. I encourage you to allow our leadership team to provide you with facts, tools and the truth while appreciating all they do. In doing so we are creating a platform of success for all here in Biddeford and the city itself.”

Bennett has tried to increase the flow of information to residents in other ways. Shortly after being hired last year, Bennett required all city departments to set up Twitter accounts.

“We sort of dived into Twitter,” Bennett said. “I would say that we have not been as successful with that as we had hoped to be. Twitter does not make it as easy for citizens to get the information as easily and controllable as the weekly electronic newsletter will.”

Bennett said the city maintains a few email subscription lists, including for parking ban notifications or construction notifications. The recipients of all the city’s various subscription lists were all sent an email inviting them to also subscribe to the Biddeford Beat.

“This will grow a little bit and will mature as a way of communicating over the next few months,” Bennett said. “We may have weekly or monthly features to add in to make it entertaining as well. One suggestion I’ve already received is to maybe see if someone with some historical information can add a monthly piece on showing what the community was like 50 years ago.

“I’ve always said we’ve got to do a better job at letting people know what’s going on. I’m very open to ideas.”

Bennett said he would like to have a smartphone app designed for the city to make information more readily available. Within a few weeks, Bennett said the online video streaming of city council meetings will be improved to include a split screen with the agenda and all supporting documents immediately available on the screen while users watch the meeting.

Another initiative Bennett implemented last spring to improve communications was a practice of publishing all Freedom of Access Act requests and the city’s answers to them on the city website.

“We made the decision after I gave my recommendation to Alan and (City Solicitor Keith Jacques),” Bennett said. “I suggested we do that so what happens is anybody can see the information, it’s not top secret information. It’s done so there’s transparency.”

The Courier filed a Freedom of Access Act seeking copies of Casavant’s email updates sent from a personal email address to constituents about city business, but the city declined to provide copies of the emails.

Bennett responded to the Courier’s request, writing, “The city previously determined that those emails are not part of city business. We have determined that they are part of (Casavant’s) political process of keeping his constituents informed … Therefore, it is the city’s conclusion that the city does not believe that the items you requested are public documents as defined in law.”

Bennett also wrote, that even if Casavant’s personal emails were considered city documents, the city only retains emails for six months.

Bennett said Casavant’s personal updates are unrelated to the Biddeford Beat, and he did not know whether Casavant’s intentions were to continue updating constituents or to instead use the publication for constituent outreach.

“The two are not connected,” he said. “His efforts are outside of the official city work.”

Casavant did not respond to the Courier’s request for comments about the new publication.

Bennett said it’s important to keep up with evolving technology and communication.

“When I first got into (city management), we typed the tax bills by hand and calculated them by hand,” he said.

To sign up to receive the newsletter, visit the city’s website at www.biddefordmaine.org.

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