John Mack - Newtown Supervisor
How Does Newtown Township's Website Stack Up?

How Does Newtown Township's Website Stack Up?

A recent analysis of municipal websites and their social media pages by Bucks County Courier Times (BCCT) found that most sites succeed as “one-stop shops for information — budgets, agendas and minutes, videos of meetings and planning documents — that residents can access,” but others offer the “bare minimum.”

Where does the Newtown Township website sit on this “spectrum?”

According to data published by the BCCT, the NT Township’s site compares very well regarding what I would call basic content for a municipal informational website (see Table 1).

Table 1: Content Available on Selected Local Municipal Websites

Of concern to me are meeting minutes and video recordings of Board of Supervisors (BOS) meetings. I’m primarily concerned about how much detail is included in minutes and how easy (or difficult) it is to search for and find specific information in the minutes or in the video recordings.

Basic Document Management

Very early on in my tenure in January, 2018, I requested that the minutes posted to Newtown Township’s website be converted to searchable PDF format. Searchable PDFs are useful for retrieving documents from a document repository (e.g., computer disk drive) and useful to find the location of a word(s) within the document.

My request was quickly implemented by the Township and now every PDF version of minutes going back two or more years is searchable.

On my Mac computer I can find any searchable PDF document stored in any folder that contains a certain word or phrase any where within the document (I was told that this is not possible to do on the computers used by Township employees). Using a PDF reader, anyone can now search the minutes for a word or phrase after downloading. It is not necessary to scroll page by page to find what you are looking for! Residents can also copy and paste sections of the minutes into other documents and posts to social media sites such as Facebook. However, only the version of the minutes on the website is official.

Searchable versions of minutes, however, would not be of much benefit if the minutes themselves did not contain important information about decisions made by Supervisors and comments from the public. The PA Sunshine Law regarding minutes of public meetings, specifies the bare minimum requirements:

"Written minutes shall be kept of all open meetings of agencies [the Township].  The minutes shall include:

  1. The date, time and place of the meeting.
  2. The names of members present.
  3. The substance of all official actions and a record by individual member of the roll call votes taken.
  4. The names of all citizens who appeared officially and the subject of their testimony."

On advice of their solicitors, some townships obey the “letter of the law” and include only minimal details. Why? Lawyers want to minimize exposure to legal challenges that can arise from minutes containing info that is open to misinterpretation or that reflects some unintentional bias. As an elected official, however, I feel it is my duty to provide as much information about the as reasonable and I expect the minutes to offer more than what is the bare minimum as required by law.

Minutes are historical records of the Township. Consequently, in my opinion, they should include enough detail to help the next Township officers 6 to 10 years down the road when the same issue pops up again. It’s also helpful for voters who would like to know the opinions of their elected officials. When I research issues, it’s helpful to see the nature of the discussion that occurred previously.

Let me cite an example. At a recent Newtown Board of Supervisors meeting there was a good deal of discussion about a Resolution Definition. The draft minutes did not include any details about comments made by residents or the Supervisors regarding the resolution. For example, the draft minutes only stated “Resident [name] commented on the resolution.” Also, the minutes did not record who voted yea and nay, but merely stated the resolution passed 4-1.

Clearly, the draft was in violation of Sunshine rule #3 above. More importantly, I believe it should have included more details of the conversation, such as “Resident [name] expressed concern about the costs associated with the resolution.” I am happy to report that the final approved minutes included this information.

I examined the minutes posted to local municipality websites to see if they provided what I consider adequate details and if they are searchable. The results are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: State of Minutes on Selected Local Municipal Websites
Streaming Indexed Video

Just as it is easier to find an item in the minutes if the document is searchable, it is also easier to locate an agenda item in the streaming video of meetings if the videos are “indexed.” Figure 1 shows an example of an indexed video recording of a Board of Supervisors meeting. Viewers can jump to any section of the video that corresponds with an agenda item merely by clicking on the item in the “Meeting Index,” which is displayed side-by-side with the video.

Figure 1. Indexed Video on the Middletown Website. The index appears in the left box under the tab “Meeting Index.”

Every local municipality that features streaming videos of meetings – EXCEPT Newtown Township – includes video indexing (see Table 3).

Table 3. State of Streaming Video on Selected Local Municipal Websites
Website Analytics

Using Google Analytics it is possible to determine the number of total website page views and visitors, and to identify poorly performing as well as top performing web pages, where visitors came from (referrers), which pages they land on, how long they stayed on the website, time of day of access, and visitor demographics such as age, gender, and geographical location. This information is critical for making improvements to the site and ensuring easy access to important information.

According to the BCCT report, “Of the 52 respondents, 35 municipalities said they could not access, did not track or had incomplete data for how many people accessed their websites in 2017.” The 15 responding municipalities with that information had a combined total of 826,326 visitors to their websites. Bensalem, Middletown and Horsham garnered the most visitors in 2017, at 168,653, 103,795 and 103,260 respective viewers.

The Newtown Township website had 42,539 unique visitors overall in 2017. For a month-to-month comparison, there were 3,690 unique visitors in May 2017 and 1,953 unique visitors in May 2018. According to the BCCT report, nine of the 18 websites it analyzed — including that for Bucks County — experienced declines in traffic between May 2017 and May 2018.

At the June 13, 2018, BOS meeting, Josephine Vlastaris, Chair of the Technology Committee, recommended using Google Analytics to monitor traffic and bounce rate for the township website, and make changes to pages as needed. The Committee suggested that the following reports be created on a monthly basis:

  1. Page Views (e.g., the 25 most visited pages)
  2. Demographics of Users (Age/Gender distribution; )
  3. Top 25 Landing and Exit Pages
  4. Behavior Flow (where do visitors go from landing pages)
  5. Device Categories (desktop/mobile/tablet)
  6. Browser source, i.e., Chrome, Firefox, IExplorer

Even though the Township already has a Google Analytics account set up to measure and report on its website traffic, the BOS decided against creating periodic reports citing a lack of need to do so.

Secure Web Sites

Google recently announced that having a “Secure” website is the easiest thing site owners can do to boost search engine ranking. You can tell that a site is secure by looking at the website address (URL). Addresses that begin with “https” are secure (“s” stands for secure). A major benefit of HTTPS is security and encryption. User information remains confidential and secure because only your browser and the server can decrypt the traffic, which prevents hackers stealing sensitive information from or injecting malicious content into web traffic. Only 4 of the 9 (44%) municipal sites listed in Table 3 are secure sites – the Newtown Township website isn’t one of them!
Social Media Use

Of the 53 local government websites studied by BCCT, 35 (66%) had active Facebook pages, 25 (47%) were active on Twitter and 13 (25%) had YouTube channels. Newtown Township has no social media presence (see Table 4).

Table 4. Social Media Used by Selected Local Municipalities

However, the Newtown Police Department has an active Twitter account (@Newtown_Police) and Facebook page.

This means that whenever the Township would like to reach out to citizens via social media, it must do so through the Police Department! Recently, for example the NT Police Twitter account poisted this notice for hiring a Township Recording Secretary:

The tweet linked to a CrimeWatch page for further information.

Posted on 07 Feb 2019, 01:30 - Category: Communication

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The opinions expressed here are solely those of John Mack and do not represent the opinions of any other person or entity.
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