It's cyber-Baltimore, hon

Web: The city's official site relaunches with flash and splash. Total cost so far: $150.

April 03, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

Dirty streets aren't the only eyesores Mayor Martin O'Malley has sworn to clean up. Now he's taking a broom to cyberspace.

First stop: Baltimore's official Web site.

In a low-key ceremony Thursday, the mayor relaunched the home page with a new look and address: www.baltimorecity.gov.

"The mayor wants to make city government more open, so people can get answers to their questions quickly and easily," says Steve Kearney, a policy researcher in the mayor's office who led the team responsible for redesign.

The new site is part of the mayor's plan to sell Baltimore to dot-com types, who often scope out a city online before they decide whether to move their families or businesses.

"If we want to be players in the new technology economy, we need to have a Web site that says we're serious about doing that," Kearney says.

And the new site is a sight to behold, at least on the surface. With glitzy, animated Art Deco opening screen and a vastly improved layout, Charm City's electronic alter ego never looked so good. The most startling part is the cost: a mere $150.

That's a good thing, because Baltimore doesn't have a sterling reputation in cyberspace.

Last month a brouhaha erupted over the Baltimore City Council site (www.baltimorecitycouncil.com). Proposed in 1998 by former council President Lawrence A. Bell III, it was pitched as a tour de force of technology, with cybercasts of meetings and other cutting-edge bells and whistles.

Two years and $150,000 later, it's still under construction.

The administration's new Web site, by contrast, has no official budget and a staff of one: Frank Perrelli, a graphic designer who toiled over survey maps and census reports in the Planning Department before he was tapped to become the city's official Webmaster.

He put together a team of people from other city departments who built the site in odd moments.

"You don't need to have a hundred consultants and a million-dollar budget consultants and a multimillion-dollar budget to do this stuff," says Perrelli. "The city's got a lot of bright people that we have to draw on."

The remodeling raises this question: What should residents expect from their government in cyberspace these days?

The answer: A lot more than they used to, says Paul McCloskey, editor-in-chief of Civic.com, a monthly magazine about information technology for state and city government officials.

Some towns, McCloskey says, have been surprisingly innovative.

In Boston, you can pay parking tickets online with a credit card. In Santa Monica, Calif., you can pay your utility bills online. In Phoenix, you can fill out streetlight repair requests. In Torrance, Calif., you can watch live broadcasts of City Council meetings. And in Arlington County, Va., you can register your bicycle on the county's Web site.

By these standards, Baltimore is already playing catch-up.

Beneath its snazzy skin, the city's Web site still isn't much more than an electronic bulletin board. Sure, you can now send e-mail to city bureaucrats. (Whether they respond remains to be seen.) You can also register to bid on contracts.

Otherwise, you'll find the usual stuff: links to city agencies, neighborhood organizations, libraries and museums. The site has a list of phone numbers for city services and press releases from the mayor's office. And, of course, a few beefcake shots of the well-muscled Martinator himself, jamming with his band, O'Malley's March.

City officials emphasize that the site is a work in progress.

"Our goal is to allow people to get their business with the city done online rather than waiting in line," says Kearney. "This is just the beginning."

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