Geoff Folsom

Geoff Folsom

I recently covered a Franklin County Commission workshop that was a bit different.

It looked kind of like a meeting out of a science fiction movie, with commissioners talking remotely to a woman on a large screen. The woman, Gabrielle Smiedt, exuded confidence in the product she was selling, and her South African accent added to the futuristic vibe of the meeting.

Smiedt was an account executive for Zencity, a software program commissioners considered in the hope it would improve feedback from the community.

Zencity, based in Tel Aviv, Israel, provides data and polling to more than 200 government agencies in the U.S., according to a news release. The company’s software uses artificial intelligence and creates algorithms to gather feedback on issues facing counties and cities from social media and traditional media sites.

At the August workshop, the county was told it could get feedback on issues ranging from whether people want a mask mandate to where in the county residents need snow plowed.

Afterward, Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker said the program could be a great tool for the county “in terms of making sure we’re addressing the issues that are indeed issues,” he said. “The more insight you can get on that, the better the decisions you can have and the better you will be in the big picture.”

The company seeks to help governments better understand their wider communities, Smiedt told commissioners, “by incorporating an array of voices that not only includes those who are able to attend a council meeting or are bothering you with daily emails,” she said.

Brinker replied that the county often hears from a handful of “frequent flyers.”

“You get a lot of the same people out in the community, just like anywhere,” Brinker said. “What you’re saying will help engage more than just those folks.”

The program also tells officials why the residents feel the way they do, Smiedt said. “A big part of the platform is covering the context of why people are positive or negative and responding the way that they are to the initiatives you are putting forward,” she said.

Zencity allows counties to get feedback from beyond their own websites, email and social media platforms, Smiedt said.

“We’re consolidating all of this into one place and running that through our artificial intelligence machine, and at the end of the day, what we’re coming out with is an actual set of reporting that allows you to navigate through all of that noise and get a good sense about what really the majority of the community are saying,” she said.

Brinker said the program could help commissioners get feedback on issues like St. Mary’s Road, a road to a public river access the county was considering vacating before public outcry, as well as planning and zoning issues and various new ideas.

Zencity said the counties it works with range in size from 20,000 residents to nearly 2.5 million residents. Franklin County has 104,682 residents.

The county ultimately decided against purchasing the software, which it would have paid for using American Rescue Plan Act funds, at least for now. An agreement, which would have paid Zencity $43,200 annually for its service, made it to the commission’s agenda but was struck.

Brinker said the service was not as high a priority as other things they could have used stimulus funds for.

That might be true, but the commission should continue to look at ways to get feedback from the public that don’t require people to come to meetings — and that also are a bit cheaper than Zencity.

Let’s face it. Many of the people that come to local government meetings are going to be on the far end of the political divide. Since this is a conservative area, you’re going to get conservative viewpoints.

Sometimes that’s good, like when a speaker recently requested that the county commission make its meetings available on video. More transparency is needed in local government.

But then you get situations where a discussion about using stimulus money to pay for possibly extending sewer systems turned into someone suggesting adding sewer could create developments where multifamily homes are forced to be placed near single-family homes. Heaven forbid people have to live near folks from different economic backgrounds.

Then there are people who show up to debate mask or vaccine issues. Those discussions are almost by definition going to include more people who don’t want any COVID-19 requirements because people who support masks and vaccines don’t want to risk going around large groups of unmasked, unvaccinated people.

I’m not sure exactly where local governments should go to get a better balance of opinions from the area’s population. Facebook is not the most civil place, either, so scouring comments there might not be the smartest move.

Perhaps they could start by following the suggestion to put meetings on video, hopefully live. Some cities, like Pacific, put meetings on Facebook Live, then prominently place contact information so residents can call or video chat with their statements remotely during the meeting.

It’s a small start but hopefully one that will get more people involved in their government.