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Citizens clicking on cob Webs

Outdated: Some towns' Internet sites can be a trip back in time, not timely.

By Marion Callahan

Of The Morning Call

July 13, 2008

Want to check what's happening in your township or borough?

Proceed with caution if you click on a municipal Web site -- you may be looking at a historical document.

Go to Lower Nazareth's calendar, for example, and you'll see what's happening -- in 2005. Portland's site lists as one of its councilmen Leonard Bucci, who died in 2006. Lehighton posts public meetings from 2005, community events from 2007 and a ''new'' power substation project ''scheduled to go online some time in June of 2002.''

Most municipalities in the Lehigh Valley have up-to-date sites, posting calendars, meeting minutes and links to recreation programs, tax information and other services for residents. East Rockhill, for example, dedicates a page where residents can provide feedback and suggestions. Williams Township posted a question-and-answer feature to circulate information about a controversial landfill issue. Emmaus has a link that connects viewers to a webcast of its meetings.

Townships behind the curve blame a lack of manpower or money for their dated sites. Lower Nazareth didn't have someone on staff with the necessary expertise until recently. Lehighton's borough secretary, Brenda Koons, who is expected to maintain the Web site, is still learning how.

''This is a new endeavor for me; I've never done a Web site,'' said Koons. ''Once I have the first update done and I become more familiar with it, I hope to keep it updated constantly.''

Craig Fahnestock, director of information technology for the Pennsylvania Association of Township Supervisors, said fewer than a third of the state's more than 1,400 municipalities have Web sites. More than 100 townships don't even have fax machines, Fahnestock said.

''Sometimes it's a matter of a township official who has a son or a grandson who can put one up, but once they leave and go off to college, no one is left to maintain it,'' he said. ''There isn't a norm when it comes to Web sites; townships are basically on their own to decide how to do it.''

Some township officials, however, see the Web sites as an obligation -- to get public information out to their residents, he said.

Lower Milford township manager Ellen L. Koplin said her township site solicits e-mail addresses from residents who want alerts or updates beyond what's offered on the Web site. Hilltown also offers ''alerts'' to township residents.

''We exist for the benefit of the residents. It's their township; they have a right to know what's pending and how it will impact them,'' said Koplin. ''You want to give the public as many opportunities to be informed and know what's happening around their homes.''

She questions why some township Web sites are still online.

''To have a Web site and keep it outdated for so long gives the public a bad impression,'' she said. ''It defeats the purpose of having one, so you're better off not offering it.''

Jill Ercolino, assistant director of communications for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, said townships aren't required to have Web sites.

''Yes, it's useful to residents, but it comes down to whether townships can afford it,'' she said.

Allentown took heat from residents earlier this year after its site listed events that were two years old. Council members said the site reflected poorly on the city, and in the following months, it was updated.

The lack of information on Lower Nazareth's site has opened doors for others to step in and fill in the blanks.

Frustrated by the lack of information provided at lowernazareth.com, Lower Nazareth resident Joe Greene launched his own Web site, lowernazareth.org. ''I knew there had to be a way to get information out to people and make it easier for people to keep up,'' said Greene, who started the site in November 2005. ''I remember going to the town's Web site and there was nothing there -- no minutes, no agendas, nothing.''

Greene said he expected the township would eventually update its site, but it never happened.

''I shouldn't need to have a Web site,'' Greene said. ''The information should be [made] readily available on the township Web site by the government.''

Alan Dilsaver, chairman of the Lower Nazareth Board of Supervisors, acknowledged the site needs an update. ''We always want to keep the general public up to date with everything, so this is something we'll have to address at a board meeting,'' he said.

Township manager Timm Tenges said plans are already under way to revamp the site, which he expects will soon post meeting minutes, ordinances and updates to the community calendar. Lower Nazareth is now training one of its employees to manage the site.

''We recognize it's a valuable tool for our constituents; we're a little slow in making that happen, but we're working on improving it.''

marion.callahan@mcall.com

610-559-2146