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City officials see an opportunity, challenge to new forms of media

WILLMAR -- Cities have used Web sites for a number of years to provide information to residents, but more cities are tapping into the new social media Twitter and Facebook to communicate with citizens.

"We've just started seeing the growth from cities using it this past year to 18 months,'' says Stephanie Wallingford, marketing manager for the League of Minnesota Cities.

Wallingford discussed the opportunities and challenges of using social media with about 70 elected and appointed officials from more than 30 cities attending a League of Minnesota Cities regional meeting Thursday afternoon at the Kandi Entertainment Center in Willmar.

Wallingford said Twitter and Facebook are being discussed by the League for first time. She said use of the new media has raised a number of issues.

"It's something that's being discussed in a lot of communities, and we really wanted to do a good job of giving a basic understanding to people so when these conversations come about that they know some of the basics and the vocabulary involved,'' Wallingford said.

"When you have things relating to city business like Open Meeting Law and data retention, there are no rules about how to use social media and be in accordance with those things yet. We really just want to make sure people understand what the risks are, but also the benefits that it gives you to get information out,'' she said.

Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service that enables its users to send and read other users' updates, which are known as tweets.

Facebook is a free-access social networking Web site that is operated and privately owned by Facebook Inc.

Wallingford urged her audience to be careful in what they write and avoid discussing something confidential or possibly the subject of negotiations.

"It is easy to do unintentionally,'' she said. "What we recommend is just for any staff person or elected official to use social media just like you would speaking to a resident or to a media person. The same level of professionalism and the same rules apply.''

Wallingford said she knows she can contact her council people by e-mail and they'll respond.

"But the difference here is that other people can see it. It's kind of a good way to gather feedback and to see what people in your community are talking about or what they're concerned about or supportive of,'' Wallingford explained. "As a citizen, you'd be able to see how other people felt about an issue or a project.''

Jim Miller, League executive director, said regional meetings offer a good way to meet with city officials that the League might not see, especially those from smaller cities that don't have the budget to send people to the annual conference or training sessions in St. Paul.

Miller said he was a little skeptical about putting social media on an agenda otherwise devoted to policy issues such as fire relief association pensions and legislative matters such as state aid cuts.

"But I've been really surprised how knowledgeable people are in general about it; not everyone to be sure, but a lot of people are,'' said Miller. "Secondly, I think they really do understand that this is an emerging media that they're going to have to understand better and figure out ways to utilize.''

Miller said the No. 1 issue on everyone's mind is finances. Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut nearly $193 million in state aid to cities -- $64.2 million in 2009 and $128.3 million in 2010 -- to help reduce a two-year budget deficit of $2.7 billion.

The 2009 cut represents an average of 3.31 percent of each city's levy plus aid. The 2010 cut will represent an average cut of 7.64 percent of each city's levy plus aid.

"We're obviously at the time of year that cities are finalizing their budgets for 2010 and regardless of where we are in this state we hear basically the same story and that is it's just incredibly difficult to make things balance,'' said Miller.

"I think everyone is also realizing that it's going to become even more difficult probably in 2011 than it is 2010.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150