Maryland politics is getting wired

E-mail, the Internet offer residents louder voice in government

March 13, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

As area governments explore the maze of new computer links to their constituents, Howard County residents have an option for tonight's annual budget hearing not available in other large jurisdictions in Maryland -- testimony by e-mail.

You can send e-mail to your U.S. senator, your governor, state legislator and listen to live General Assembly floor debates through a computer, but Howard is alone among metropolitan area governments to offer electronic testimony.

"Any e-mail about the budget goes into a file," said Howard County Executive James N. Robey. "I've got $63 million in [budget] requests. I'm going to have $40 million in [new] revenue. I don't want to presume for one second that I know all the priorities."

The electronic option will never replace the personal touch, officials say, but it can help them gauge the depth of concern on an issue, or make a point that could be lost otherwise.

"I still find it helpful to have people there," said Howard council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a Columbia Democrat.

Cues such as body language, tone of voice and personal appearance can help her interpret a person's testimony, she said, and occasionally she wants to ask a question. But others say the computer offers a valuable connection between residents and government.

"I loved it. I called everybody I know," said Mary Blake of Columbia, who sent e-mail to Robey about the worn-out 13-year-old band uniforms her Hammond High ninth-grader must rent.

"I have three kids. It's hard to show up for meetings," she said, adding that she doesn't speak well before a crowd.

Blake said she got a reply from Robey within a day of sending her message, which also pleased her. "I was real shocked," she said.

Providing residents and government officials with more ways to use computers and the Internet to talk to each other, check facts and get quick feedback is a fast-growing trend nationally, said C. Vernon Gray, president of the National Association of Counties and a Howard County councilman.

"That's what we are going to see more and more of," he said.

Six of Maryland's other seven metropolitan areas -- Baltimore City and Baltimore, Harford, Carroll, Prince George's and Montgomery counties -- provide e-mail access to public officials, but Howard's testimony twist gives the county the technology lead -- for now.

Anne Arundel residents aren't able to send e-mail to their officials.

Baltimore's City Council is working on a more sophisticated system that would allow computer testimony on specific bills before council committees, said Anthony W. McCarthy, council President Sheila Dixon's chief of staff. Dixon would like to make council sessions visually accessible through computer, too, McCarthy said.

"We've just been given a proposal we really like," said McCarthy, predicting the new system would be in place in about six weeks.

In Howard, the idea for electronic testimony originated in public information officer Victoria Goodman's office. She was searching, she said, for ways to fulfill Robey's charge to find more ways to include people in county government.

Testifying by computer makes sense, especially in Howard, Goodman said.

"It's a very logical way to do it [testify]. We have a population that's very computer-savvy."

Although Howard is a small county where people tend to participate in their government, Robey said the contact helps him keep track of what's on people's minds.

Baltimore County Del. Thomas E. Dewberry, who represents the Maryland House of Delegates on the Joint Legislative Data Systems Advisory Committee, said the legislature moves too fast and has too many members and bills to allow e-mail testimony, but computers are helping people keep track of public business and legislators keep in touch with one another.

"You can get our proceedings live on the Internet. You can go back to any legislative day and hear the session. I missed a Monday night session a few weeks ago. I had my laptop computer and plugged it in at home" to hear the floor discussion, Dewberry said.

Legislators who have laptops also can send e-mail to one another, he said. By next year, all members should have them. To vote, however, a member must be physically present, and that shouldn't change, he said.

"After listening to a debate, I almost by a hair changed my vote" recently, Dewberry said. "Some points came up on the floor that I had not thought about."

When e-mail messages get so popular that elected officials are inundated with them, they'll have their staffs screen them, as Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Democratic U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes do.

"The governor receives a daily e-mail report, including mail and e-mail one-sentence descriptions" with a sampling of the day's messages, said spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie.

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