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Groton launches online community engagement platform

Groton — Groton has a new tool to go beyond the traditional public meeting.

The town started a new website, greatergroton.com, as a community engagement platform for town staff to post topics and projects and hear feedback from people who live, work or visit Groton.

People can register for the website and then log in to make comments, complete polls and surveys, and suggest ideas, said Sam Eisenbeiser, economic development specialist for the Town of Groton.

"This platform is designed to complement every other avenue of public input/feedback that we currently have," Eisenbeiser said. "It's not designed to replace anything but we do feel like it offers a very convenient way for folks to keep up to date with projects in town and give us feedback when it's more convenient for them."

Topics currently on the site range from how Groton should spend its American Rescue Plan Act funding and what should be beautified in Groton to a more lighthearted post about the turkeys dubbed Thelma and Louise who have made frequent appearances outside businesses along Route 1. There also is a suggestion box in which people can offer comments or suggestions, as well as a feature called “What the Fact?” in which people can ask the town to fact check information they have heard.

There are public discussion threads for the topics. The town lists the staff members who are monitoring the feedback for each thread and may post in response to comments.

“It’s designed to enhance transparency of data-gathering and decision-making that happens in the town,” Eisenbeiser added.

Lauren Post, economic development technician for the town, said she and Eisenbeiser attended a workshop at a Connecticut Conference of Municipalities annual convention a couple of years ago where they learned about Bang The Table's online community engagement platform. She said they thought it was really neat, and though it wasn't the right time then, lately there have been some hot topics in Groton and transparency has come up as a priority, so the town thought now would be the right time to launch the platform.

Post said many people comment on Facebook, but the town isn't able to capture all the comments. Post said, "It's hard to go and correct misinformation, and so we figured we’d meet the people where they are, which a lot of times is online, and be able to offer them the transparency and the voice that they deserve."

People who have registered and provided a valid, verified email address can comment under a user name, and Post said the benefit of this is that people who may not have felt comfortable speaking out using their name can still express their opinions.

Tabitha Harkin, community development planner, said attending a public meeting may be difficult for people who have children or are elderly, so bringing the discussion online, at a time when many people have smart phones, levels the ground for everyone.

People who are raising a family may have obligations that prevent them from attending a meeting, or people may have language barriers. Historically, people who are retired or semi-retired are more likely to attend in-person meetings, Eisenbeiser said.

“We really want everybody to feel like whatever channel works for them best, it’s easier and easier for their voice to be heard,” he said.

All town departments are able to use the site and post topics of interests, and the town also is working with the City of Groton.

The platform also comes as the town is slated to receive $8.5 million in American Recovery Act funding.

“As a stipulation to this funding, U.S. Treasury urged each community to engage their constituents in developing plans to use these payments given the 'scale of funding and its potential to catalyze broader economic recovery,'” Harkin said. “In order for the Town of Groton to engage in this type of community outreach during an active pandemic, we invested in an online community engagement platform at the cost of approximately $15,000 a year because it had the robust functionality of being a secure and moderated platform for community input.”

As the town collects data on how people want to spend ARPA funding, the town plans to use a budget simulation tool that would allow people to show how they hypothetically would allocate the funding into “buckets,” or categories, Eisenbeiser said. The idea is that this would give the town more data on how people wish to spend the ARPA funding.

The town also envisions using the site to provide more detailed information on property redevelopment projects, such as providing a development timeline, especially because timelines are often long and drawn out with many meetings and hearings, and renderings of the proposed project, Harkin said.

Post said for a long time municipalities have operated under the model that people can come find whatever information they want at Town Hall or Town Hall Annex from Monday to Friday from the hours of 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but that timeframe may not work for some people. Now, if people are thinking about something at 6 at night on the weekend, they can go online and post it, and someone from the town will see it and respond to it.

The town also set up two kiosks with laptops — one at the Senior Center and one at the library — for people, who may not have their own devices, to be able to access the platform, Harkin said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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