In an effort to better connect with residents, the Gainesville City Commission tested a “phone-conference” town hall meeting.
At 6 p.m. yesterday, the company Telephone Town Hall Meeting called about 23,000 Gainesville landlines. Callers who stayed on the line could listen to the meeting live from city hall, and ask questions about the transportation surtax initiative that residents will vote on Nov. 4.
Caller’s questions were vetted through a screening process done by the hired service. They were then given one minute to speak.
During the hour and fifteen minute meeting, commissioners responded to more than a dozen questions. Over 2,000 people listened to the meeting for at least a minute, and at the peak of calls, more than 500 residents were listening in at the same time, according to Becky Rountree, the administrative services director for the city.
The commission deemed the innovative test a success.
“It far exceeded my expectations,” said Commissioner Todd Chase. “Our whole purpose was to test if this is a good way to reach out to our community, and I can tell you that in my four years in office, I’ve never been before more than 400 people.”
Lila Stewart, senior strategic planner for the city, said the telephone format was used to try and include people who normally can’t attend town hall meetings.
“We are hoping to give people who can’t make it to city hall [for the evening] a chance to be engaged from their home,” she said.
The city hall auditorium seats approximately 100 people, and there are overflow rooms in the building where people can watch the meeting from television screens. Mayor Ed Braddy said that while some town hall meetings get more attendance than others, the commissioners tend to see the same 20 to 25 residents.
Braddy said being able to gather more opinions and feedback from residents helps the city commission better serve the community.
“[The city commissioners] are the ones supposed to carry out the will of the people, and it’s sometimes kind of hard to gauge that will if you’re not effectively communicating with the public,” he said. “So this is a tool that we have to more effectively communicate with that public, and a larger number and a more representative sampling I think gives us good feedback”
Stewart said that the city had shopped various phone-conference services before doing business with Telephone Town Hall Meeting. The company has hosted conferences for other Florida municipalities like Palm Bay, Fort Lauderdale and North Port.
President of Telephone Town Hall Meeting, Curt Cerveny, said that the company collects landline telephone numbers through public records.
The company is not legally able to call cell phones, but residents can opt in by submitting their cell phone number to a website linked to their respective city. Only about 10 residents provide cell numbers last night. Cerveny said that because the calls are mainly made to landlines, the people receiving the calls tend to be older.
The city commission spent $4,500 for Wednesday’s meeting. But Braddy said it was money well spent, and it is something he and the commission will discuss using again.
“Relative to some of our other expenditures, that’s a great bargain to be able to reach hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens that we otherwise would miss,” he said.