Hearing sign-up by computer pondered

Howard considers move away from all-paper process

April 16, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

High-tech communications might seem ubiquitous, but for people who want to testify at local government public hearings in the Baltimore metropolitan area, not much has changed in recent decades. Although e-mailed testimony is becoming more common, residents who want their say in person show up, sign their names to a paper list and then wait, sometimes for hours.

"It's always come down to the easiest, fastest, fairest method - first come, first served," said Thomas J. Peddicord Jr., Baltimore County Council secretary. Other area jurisdictions use the same paper sign-up system, though Howard County's school board allows people to register by telephone weeks before a public hearing.

But now the Howard County Council is talking about taking a baby step toward change - by maybe next year letting residents type their names into a computer in the hearing room instead of writing on sheets of paper.

"We'll have a good list, in good order," with legible names, said Sheila Tolliver, council administrator.

After that, who knows what's next? Internet sign-up? Interactive, televised testimony?

Signing up "online is a good idea," said Howard County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon at a recent council meeting. The 30-year-old Ellicott City Republican works in the computer industry, and he often suggests high-tech solutions.

"If you sign up from home, and you're 100 on the list, you don't have to get there at 7:30 p.m. You can get there at 9:30 p.m., stay home with your family and put your kids to bed," Merdon said.

Some county residents agree it can be frustrating arriving early to one of Howard's frequent nighttime meetings, signing up as a speaker and then waiting.

"It's a huge waste of time for citizens," said Courtney Watson, a Howard County civic activist who lately helped lead a grass-roots campaign to win approval for building a 12th county high school.

"If you don't go early, you'll be there until midnight or 1 a.m. For a working parent with young children, that can be a major inconvenience," Watson said.

Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, said the chance for rural Lisbon residents to time their testimony or even speak from home would "be great, someday. You want to make it easier for people to communicate with government, not harder."

Still, he said, "I can't help but think it will be more effective for people to be there in person."

Others worry about the fairness of Internet sign-ups or taking testimony by television. Not everyone has a computer or cable television, and for some, nothing will replace the old-fashioned method.

"When you have people who are totally tech-immersed, that tends to be their view of the world. That is not the world's view," said 62-year-old Howard Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung , a west Columbia Democrat who is a confessed "nontechie type."

"I still think there's value in personal communications - people in the same room talking to each other at the same time in the same place," she said.

"I'd rather look you in the eye and see you squirm," Lorsung said, laughing.

Officials in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties and Baltimore City said they use the traditional paper sign-up system for public testimony, and none reported contemplating a change, though the Baltimore County school board recently accepted videotaped testimony from a Parent Teacher Association official.

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