Got a beef, a PC and a modem? Tell it to City Hall Computer messages link officials, citizens

July 27, 1992|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

Call them pioneers. Call them charitable souls. Call them computer freaks. The president and vice president of an Annapolis computer firm profess to be all three.

They say their cutting-edge technology can reach Anne Arundel County's elected officials more efficiently than the average letter, telegram, phone call or facsimile.

Even better, Rick Hirschauer, president of United Data Products, and Horton J. McCormick Jr., vice president, say their new electronic bulletin board, Citizen Link, is absolutely free.

Starting Aug. 1, anyone with a personal computer and a modem can log on. In seconds, users can tell their local, state and federal representatives exactly what they think of them.

"It's an idea whose time has come," said Mr. McCormick, who estimates that half of county households own personal computers. "It may turn out no one wants to talk to politicians. Maybe they'd rather play computer games. But I doubt it."

"This being an election year, we thought it would be a good opportunity to promote electronic communication," said Mr. Hirschauer, adding that the name recognition his company will gain and the chance to charge for advertisements later are payment enough.

As with anything unfamiliar, they expect initial resistance to their idea, particularly from elected officials who have not equipped their offices with personal computers or who may need special clearance from a data processing or budget office.

"We don't expect to lasso everybody," Mr. McCormick said. "We're a little ahead of our time."

Eventually, he said, nobody will write letters. And leaving a mere phone message with your senator or council representative will seem inadequate, he said.

The service is set up to allow everyone with a personal computer and modem to dial the bulletin board's phone number and log on. Once they enter the system, they follow electronic instructions to get to the message function. They can message anyone with a mailbox on the system. That person, in turn, can phone the bulletin board, open his electronic mailbox and read and respond to his messages.

Mr. McCormick envisions electronic mail to the governor, senators, delegates, County Council members and the mayor of Annapolis. For now, the company offers one local Annapolis line, which can be used by only one person at a time.

Elected officials could issue polls and surveys through the system and instantly learn their constituents' views on a bill, Mr. McCormick said. And residents can shoot a quick message to their representatives, urging them to vote a certain way.

"It's instant voting," Mr. Hirschauer said. "It allows citizens to vote on every bill their congressman will vote on."

Mr. McCormick acknowledges that the idea could take time to catch on. Eventually, he said, county residents could use the system at public libraries, which could connect data search computers to Citizen Link via modems.

For now, if politicians begin receiving electronic mail, Mr. McCormick will print it and send it to the officials in hopes of selling them on the service. If the representative declines to participate, his or her name will be removed from the system.

The bulletin board idea appealed to Brad Fitch, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th.

"You're reducing the amount of paper and helping the environment and increasing the speed with which we can respond to citizens' concerns," said Mr. Fitch. He said that each month the congressman receives between 3,000 and 4,000 letters and phone messages, which aides must manually sort and answer.

"If they could be categorized into defense, environment, economy, it would give us a quicker way to sift through that," he said.

But several wrinkles remain to be ironed out, some political aides say.

Among the members of the state's legislative delegation, computer set-ups vary from office to office, said Susan Davies, a legislative aide to Democratic state Sen. Michael Wagner. Each official chooses how to budget his own or her computer money, she said.

"The first obstacle is getting clearance for state-owned computers to hook up to something in the private sector," Ms. Davies said.

Bureaucracy doesn't phase Mr. Hirschauer and Mr. McCormick, who say elected officials might want to use bulletin boards on home computers.

But Ms. Davies remains unconvinced that the electronic way will become the most effective.

"We get peppered with Mailgrams and faxes," Ms. Davies said. "But I don't know if they carry the same impact as someone calling up or sending a letter."

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