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Pasco County considers hosting town hall meetings over telephone

DADE CITY — Frustrated by lackluster crowds at public meetings, Pasco officials hope to try a new way of interacting with residents: a telephone town hall meeting.

The system is essentially democracy by conference call. For a countywide meeting, officials would call about 100,000 people with a prerecorded message telling them how to join the call. From there, a Colorado-based company would play the role of producer at a talk radio station. Callers can press 0 to ask a question, or simply listen and learn a little about their government.

Meetings would feature one or two county officials who would field between 15 and 30 questions in an hour.

"If you have 1,000 people listening, that's 1,000 people who we weren't reaching before," said Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker.

She pointed to the small Brevard County town of Palm Bay, which has hosted three telephone meetings since July and scheduled another for later this month. City Manager Lee Feldman described one meeting that had 2,000 people, including 500 who stayed on the line for the full hour.

"I've never had a public meeting of a town hall type where I've had 500 people there for an hour," he said. At most meetings, "we're lucky if we can get 30 people to stay an hour."

Pasco commissioners heard about the proposal during a workshop earlier this week in Dade City. (Crowd estimate for that meeting: about 20, including several county staffers, reporters and commission meeting "regulars.")

Details of the plan are still being worked out. Commissioners might hold a trial run this summer where administrators answer questions about the county budget. Officials might also host several smaller meetings featuring one commissioner and County Administrator John Gallagher.

A countywide meeting would cost about $11,000, including $8,000 to make the initial calls to residents and $3,200 for the vendor who manages the meeting. Baker said there is enough money in this year's budget to host one countywide meeting or a couple smaller meetings.

Most commissioners at Tuesday's workshop supported the concept.

Commission chairwoman Ann Hildebrand called attendance at previous county meetings "skimpy" and occasionally dominated by one group of people, such as proponents of elderly nutrition programs. She said she used similar technology during a meeting of Tampa Bay's regional transportation agency, and she answered questions from residents for about two hours. "It was highly successful," she said.

But Commissioner Jack Mariano was skeptical. He doubted that busy parents with kids to feed would pay rapt attention to a dry government meeting. He said people might call in but quickly set the phone down and move on to other activities. He suggested filming the meetings and encouraging people to watch on TV.

"This sounds like a lot of money," he said.

But Feldman, in Palm Bay, said people appreciate the convenience of a telephone town hall.

"I've only heard good feedback," he said. "They don't have to leave to go the meeting, they don't have to worry about finding somebody to watch the kids."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Pasco County considers hosting town hall meetings over telephone 03/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 10, 2011 7:17pm]
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