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Cyberspace Civic Center

People in local government offices are moving their cities onto the information superhighway, giving residents increasingly convenient access via the Internet.

March 10, 2000|ANN L. KIM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Naoma Valdes' first computer, a 48-kilobyte Apple II, was purchased more than 20 years ago and could hold the same amount of data as a present-day word-processing document of several pages.

Now, the 67-year-old grandmother and deputy clerk of Hermosa Beach works on a Pentium-powered computer with more than 100 times the memory, posting documents and tidbits of news and gossip on the city's official Internet site.

Valdes--who says she was amused at being tagged a "senior cyberpunk" by a local newspaper--started the city's site about three years ago during a weekend Internet course and taught herself the programming language HTML with a library book.

She is one of scores of bureaucrats throughout the county who have eased their cities onto the information superhighway and given "netizens" easier access to local government.

Agendas for coming council meetings, city phone directories and blurbs about local history are just a few mouse clicks away for Web-savvy residents in most cities.

And as local governments become comfortable providing such basic information, more are looking to a future with online pet registration, utility-bill payments and sign-ups for city sports leagues.

In Santa Monica, live Web broadcasts of bimonthly City Council meetings are available to those whose computers have enough speed and memory. Online forms zip requests for graffiti removal and street maintenance to the correct departments.

"The writing's on the wall that more and more [services] are going to be Internet-based," said Keith Kurtz, Santa Monica's information systems manager. "Today, it's a fact of doing business or of doing government that you're going to have a presence on the Internet."

But don't expect government buildings to be razed as municipal Web sites offer a wider array of information and services. Old-fashioned counter and phone services and mailings to residents aren't going to disappear.

"We have not gotten to the point where we can cut off an old service delivery method in favor of the Web," said Bryan Sands, who oversees information technology in Pasadena.

Instead, the Internet has become an alternate conduit of information for those who are comfortable navigating in cyberspace.

Almost half of Los Angeles-area adults use the Internet at home or at work, according to surveys done by Scarborough Research, a New York company that studies consumer trends in major U.S. cities.

Web Audience Proves Receptive

While it is difficult to track how many individuals visit a site, city officials say the figures they do have indicate a receptive Web audience.

Pasadena, for example, received 139,338 visits to its Web site during the last three months of 1999, Sands said. The number does not take into account multiple viewings by the same individual during that period.

As a service that never closes its doors, the Internet has given some 8-to-5 city operations 24-hour availability.

Residents who want to offer suggestions for city spending can avoid waiting their turn to speak at Santa Monica City Council meetings and voice their thoughts using an online form.

"I was very pleased to have a chance to use the Internet to express my ideas about the budget," said Cheryl Bader, who took advantage of this Web site feature. "I think citizen involvement is a very exciting thing made easier by the Internet."

Kathy McGuire of Diamond Bar used to stay up to date on City Council decisions by reading transcripts of meetings at the library. Now she peruses the documents from her home via the Internet at her own convenience.

The sites have made things more convenient for city workers in some ways, too.

When residents call Hermosa Beach City Hall with such questions as whether a neighbor's barking dog is loud enough to violate the municipal noise ordinance, the first thing Valdes asks is whether they have Internet access.

She said about 50% of callers say yes, and she can direct them to the relevant sections of the city code online.

"They aren't dependent on coming in and picking up copied pages from me," Valdes said. "It saves them time, it saves me time."

Creating a site to provide such basic information is relatively inexpensive--costing about $20,000 for a server and software, according to Sands--and requires little technical expertise.

"Just taking a good look at a book and a crib sheet, you can put together almost anything," said Valdes, who spent $200 on her Web design crash course.

But with some cities and counties spending $100 to $250 an hour for consultants or tens of thousands of dollars for cutting-edge software packages, sites can run the gamut from nuts-and-bolts lists of links to splashy displays of civic pride.

A visit to West Hollywood's site, for example, leads to a veritable city commercial, with an eye-catching display of photos and text flashing on the screen while a pulsating drumbeat emanates from the computer's speakers.

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