Many Wichita golfers are not pleased with the city of Wichita’s proposal to hire a private management firm to oversee city golf courses.
As happened in the debate over privatizing management for Century II, a multitude of citizens spoke out in protest.
But this time, Wichitans had a new tool to express their concerns. Starting last fall, Wichita rolled out Forum, a new city-run website dedicated to civic engagement. It’s meant to act as an online venue for conversations about Wichita’s city government.
The platform will take time to gain trust among citizens, said Aline Muylaert, co-founder and head of government success with CitizenLab, Forum’s parent company. The city has to show that it’s listening and responding to the feedback, she said.
“The way we try to build that is just going with a project by project approach and not making big promises,” Muylaert said. “We really believe in showing people that they can trust this.”
Using Forum for feedback on hiring private management of the golf courses is the city’s first major project with the new tool. The city’s Board of Park Commissioners recently voted to recommend private management. The City Council is expected to vote on the issue March 1.
What is Forum?
Muylaert, who kicked off CitizenLab seven years ago, started the platform as a 21-year-old student. She wanted to give feedback to her local government in Belgium, but didn’t want to attend a town hall meeting.
“A digital platform can be inclusive by helping governments reach more people, younger people,” Muylaert said.
The company works with local governments to tailor civic engagement websites, like Forum, to each city. Wichitans can share feedback in two ways.
First, residents can comment on or ask questions about specific city projects, like private management of the city golf courses. The city chooses which projects or topics will have a dedicated page on Forum.
Each project should have a staff member dedicated to responding to questions and comments from citizens, said Cory Buchta, a community service representative with the city of Wichita.
“This platform is set up to be a little bit more two-way communication as opposed to the traditional way that governments use Facebook or other social media,” Buchta said. “The difference here is that, as moderators, we’re actively participating in the discussion.”
Since it’s online, residents can comment on Forum projects anytime — unlike public comment sessions during City Council meetings, which are held during the workday.
Residents can also propose their own ideas or projects that they’d like to see from the city. Some have already taken to the platform to propose community gardens or adding a statue of Dwight D. Eisenhower at the city airport. They can then engage with each other on the platform.
“We know that there are neighborhood leaders and influencers throughout the city. We know that they have really great ideas,” Buchta said. “We don’t have a great way of fostering those discussions, and so we thought that could be one major use of Forum.”
Wichita golfers first to dive into Forum
The city’s first push for feedback about privatizing management of golf courses was successful, said Naomi Shapiro, the city’s communications specialist. The conversation garnered 104 comments.
About 63% of those received responses from a city representative.
About 75% of the respondents on Forum were concerned about a transition to a private management company or wanted more transparency and questions answered about the plan. In response, the city held live question and answer sessions with the director of the parks department and delayed a City Council vote on the contract, Buchta said. Also, the city released proposals submitted by the four private management companies that applied to oversee the golf courses.
The city typically does not share these responses until the City Council votes, according to City Manager Robert Layton.
To some golfers, Forum helped provide a place to converse with the city.
“I think the forum is a useful tool,” said Mark Masterson, who uses the city golf courses. “It provides a means to comment on an issue and receive feedback from city staff.”
But some residents concerned about the golf course proposal remain skeptical that the city listened to them, on Forum or elsewhere.
“Unfortunately, it appears city officials had already made the decision to outsource the management and were only using this as a means to convince local golfers that it will be a positive solution to make improvements,” golfer Laura Rainwater wrote in an email to The Wichita Beacon.
Bill Stout, another user of Wichita golf courses, also expressed concern about the city’s ability to delete comments from Forum.
Shapiro said that the city does not delete comments on Forum but does have community guidelines to ensure posts are free of offensive language or personal attack.
Stout and Nancy Knopp, a member of Wichita’s eight-member Golf Advisory Committee, also disliked that the platform asked users for personal information. Forum requires users to submit their first and last names and email address. Gender, year of birth, address and education are optional.
‘Just part of the puzzle’
The city of Wichita plans to roll out Forum more widely this coming year, Buchta said. That includes marketing it citywide and training city staff how to use it.
Shapiro said they hope to use Forum for a number of projects, including getting insight into how Wichitans get their news and information, and potentially for gathering community feedback regarding a new police chief. The city is currently designing the process to hire its next police chief.
Ultimately, Buchta said he hopes to see department heads use Forum to engage citizens early on in city projects.
Muylaert added that a city’s civic engagement strategy should include options beyond Forum. Including offline options like community meetings is essential for citizens without internet or computer access.
“This is just part of the puzzle,” Muylaert said.
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