John Mack - Newtown Supervisor
Communication Category

What is the Most Satisfying Part of My Job as Newtown Township Supervisor?

I'm often asked "How do you like being Supervisor?" I can't answer that without some kind of qualifier such as "...on a scale of 1 to 10." But even then, it depends.

A better question is "What’s the Most Satisfying Part of My Job as Newtown Township Supervisor?" That one is easy to answer...

By far, the most satisfying part of my job as Supervisor is interacting with residents to keep them informed and to listen to their concerns. If I can help solve residents’ problems, that’s just icing on the cake!

In my opinion, personal interaction with residents regarding their concerns is an important part of my responsibilities as Supervisor. I want to be sure that I spend enough time reaching out to and responding to residents. On average, I spend about 8 hours per month interacting with residents. It's satisfying because it helps me fulfill my core values, which are best expressed as in the following word cloud.

Every one of those words is applicable to my job as Newtown Supervisor. Every one!

It's even more satisfying to know that my efforts are appreciated. Here are just a few comments I have received from residents recently:

“Outstanding documentation of accountability. This is a very rare to see. Thank you.” – A response to a post on Facebook documenting the time I spend per month on official Supervisor activities (see here).

“I looked at your website. Keep up the great efforts to make Newtown a better place for all.” and “Been living here since '96 and am so glad to see someone take leadership to connect our neck of the woods.” and “Thank you for doing a great job keeping the residents informed.” –  Personal messages from members of Nextdoor where I often post information.

“Great flow chart you created & posted to your blog! Thank goodness you did it since I got totally lost when the Town Solicitor tried to explain it!” – Comment about the process of amending an Township Ordinance to allow for a combined gas station/convenience store (read "What's Next for Ordinance Amendment to Allow Wawa on Newtown Bypass?... It's Complicated!").

“It is amazing, but could not have happened without you, John Mack, bringing this issue to the attention of concerned residents. This could become a model for other townships to follow. :-)” – Comment in response to resident turnout at a Board of Supervisors meeting and engagement in public comments regarding the Township’s Pollution Reduction Plan (read "Residents Comment on Roberts Ridge Park Meadow Plan").

It's really an honor to serve the community! I learn something new every day and have met many fine people and volunteers who also put in a lot of time without any compensation at all. Thanks to everyone who help keep Newtown in business and safe.

Posted on 07 Aug 2019, 01:24 - Category: Communication

Newtown Township Police Department Adds Nextdoor to Its Social Media Outreach Program

This morning, I was surprised to see this in my email inbox from Nextdoor:

Actually, I should not have been surprised because the Police Department has an excellent FB page as well as Twitter and Instagram accounts! Kudos to Sergeant Lupinetti, who manages these accounts.

About Nextdoor

Nextdoor is a social networking service for neighborhoods. Nextdoor members can post notices, events, and topics for discussion and/or feedback from other members. Members submit their real names and addresses and other information in their profiles. Posts made to the website are available only to other Nextdoor members living in the same neighborhood, hence the name “Nextdoor.”

Typical platform uses include neighbors reporting on news and events in their "neighborhood" and members asking each other for local service-provider recommendations. It can also be used to post events and other notices of interest to members such as this post I made about the impact of the Township’s Pollution Reduction plan on Roberts Ridge Park:

This resulted in residents attending a Board of Supervisors meeting and submitting comments on the plan for the park. As a result, the plan was changed (read “Newtown Revises Pollution Reduction Plan After Hearing Resident Comments”) and a new group, “Friends of Roberts Ridge Park” (see the FB Group) was formed with a goal to plant native trees in the park to augment the well-maintained meadow area approved by the Township.

It’s a shame that Newtown Township does not have any official social media presence. Of the 53 local government websites studied by the Bucks County Courier Times, 35 (66%) had active Facebook pages, 25 (47%) were active on Twitter and 13 (25%) had YouTube channels.

Social Media Used by Selected Local Municipalities

Because Newtown does not have its own Twitter account or Facebook page, it must rely upon the Police Department whenever it would like to reach out to citizens via social media. Recently, for example the NT Police Twitter account posted this notice for hiring a Township Recording Secretary:

Although the NTPD Twitter account has over 3,100 follows, the majority of these followers are other police departments, law enforcement agencies, police officers and their families, school districts, etc. Consequently, posting to this account is not the best way to reach a significant number of ordinary law-abiding citizens of Newtown.

Now that the NTPD is posting to Nextdoor (see the Departments Nextdoor profile and list of posts here), I am sure their messages will more likely be received and read by the citizens they are intended to reach.

Further Reading: "My BIG Idea: Openness, Transparency & Better Communications"

Posted on 28 Jun 2019, 01:36 - Category: Communication

My BIG Idea: Openness, Transparency & Better Communications

You've probably seen the segment "My BIG Idea" on the NBC Nightly News where Democrats running for president talk to Harry Smith about their big ideas, how to pay for them and the impact on voters. At first, I thought this was a bit hokey, but then I got to like the idea and decided to publish my own BIG Idea, which is: Openness, Transparency & Better Communications in local government!

There are several things I would like to accomplish to achieve that goal in Newtown:

(1) The Township should implement a text messaging and social media based “emergency" notification system that can ALSO be used to notify residents of public meetings and other official news from the Township.

I surveyed over 100 people about such a system (e.g., Savvy Citizen which would cost about $300 per month). 82% of respondents said they would opt-in to such a system. Currently, the only such system available to residents is a free service called ReadyBucks, which is pitiful - it only reports such things as flash floods, sever thunderstorms, etc., which is information we all get from a number of other free sources!

See the survey results and more information, comments from respondents pro and con, etc..

(2) Searchable minutes of meetings (DONE!): Very early on in my tenure in January, 2018, I requested that the minutes posted to Newtown Township’s website be converted to searchable PDF format. Searchable PDFs are useful for retrieving documents from a document repository (e.g., computer disk drive) and useful to find the location of words and phrases within documents.

My request was quickly implemented by the Township and now every PDF version of minutes going back two or more years is searchable. For more on that, read "Basic Document Management" in this Blog Post.

(3) Streaming Indexed Video: Just as it is easier to find an item in the minutes if the document is searchable, it is also easier to locate an agenda item in the streaming video of Board of Supervisors (BOS) meetings if the videos are “indexed.”

Here’s how this is implemented in EVERY other local municipality (Lower Makefield, Middletown, Northampton, Upper Makefield, Wrightstown):

The agenda/Meeting Index is displayed alongside the video screen. Viewers can jump to any section of the video that corresponds with an agenda item merely by clicking on the item in the “Meeting Index.” It’s a travesty that Newtown stands alone in NOT having this option even though it uses the exact same video streaming software as other townships! For more on that, read "Newtown BOS Website Video Streaming Improvement" in this Blog Post.

(4) Website Analytics: At the June 13, 2018, BOS meeting, Josephine Vlastaris, former Chair of the Technology Committee, recommended using Google Analytics to monitor traffic and bounce rates for the township website, and make changes to pages as needed (see her presentation here). The Committee suggested that the following reports be created on a monthly basis:

  • Page Views (e.g., the 25 most visited pages)
  • Demographics of Users (Age/Gender distribution)
  • Top 25 Landing and Exit Pages
  • Behavior Flow (where do visitors go from landing pages)
  • Device Categories (desktop/mobile/tablet)
  • Browser source, i.e., Chrome, Firefox, IExplore

This information is critical for making improvements to the site and ensuring easy access to important information. Even though the Township already has a Google Analytics account set up to measure and report on its website traffic (the code is already on every page), the BOS decided against creating periodic reports citing a "lack of need to do so." I should note that it takes about 2 minutes to produce a useful analytics report from Google!

(5) Social Media: Of the 53 local government websites studied by the Bucks County Courier Times, 35 (66%) had active Facebook pages, 25 (47%) were active on Twitter and 13 (25%) had YouTube channels (source: "How Does Newtown Township's Website Stack Up?") . Newtown Township has no social media presence whereas the Police Department does have an excellent FB page and Twitter account!

(6) Glossary of Municipal Terms: MS4, PRD, LST, EIT, SALDO, Liquid Fuels Program, Impervious Surface, Sketch Plan, Conditional Use, Spot-Zoning, etc. These are just some of the acronyms and terms a Newtown Township Supervisor has to learn to do his or her job. Perhaps more importantly, township residents must understand these terms if they are expected to participate in local government. To that end, I have created the first-of-its-kind Glossary of Municipal Terms on my website.

A similar glossary of terms should be available on the Township’s website. Note that many terms link to related information on my website. The Township’s glossary would, of course, link to repeated information on the Township site.

This all relates to the poor use and management of digital assets by the Township, which appears to be living in the 1990’s as far as its use of modern communication tools goes. 

 

Posted on 26 Jun 2019, 01:48 - Category: Communication

How Does Newtown Township's Website Stack Up?

A recent analysis of municipal websites and their social media pages by Bucks County Courier Times (BCCT) found that most sites succeed as “one-stop shops for information — budgets, agendas and minutes, videos of meetings and planning documents — that residents can access,” but others offer the “bare minimum.”

Where does the Newtown Township website sit on this “spectrum?”

According to data published by the BCCT, the NT Township’s site compares very well regarding what I would call basic content for a municipal informational website (see Table 1).

Table 1: Content Available on Selected Local Municipal Websites

Of concern to me are meeting minutes and video recordings of Board of Supervisors (BOS) meetings. I’m primarily concerned about how much detail is included in minutes and how easy (or difficult) it is to search for and find specific information in the minutes or in the video recordings.

Basic Document Management

Very early on in my tenure in January, 2018, I requested that the minutes posted to Newtown Township’s website be converted to searchable PDF format. Searchable PDFs are useful for retrieving documents from a document repository (e.g., computer disk drive) and useful to find the location of a word(s) within the document.

My request was quickly implemented by the Township and now every PDF version of minutes going back two or more years is searchable.

On my Mac computer I can find any searchable PDF document stored in any folder that contains a certain word or phrase any where within the document (I was told that this is not possible to do on the computers used by Township employees). Using a PDF reader, anyone can now search the minutes for a word or phrase after downloading. It is not necessary to scroll page by page to find what you are looking for! Residents can also copy and paste sections of the minutes into other documents and posts to social media sites such as Facebook. However, only the version of the minutes on the website is official.

Searchable versions of minutes, however, would not be of much benefit if the minutes themselves did not contain important information about decisions made by Supervisors and comments from the public. The PA Sunshine Law regarding minutes of public meetings, specifies the bare minimum requirements:

"Written minutes shall be kept of all open meetings of agencies [the Township].  The minutes shall include:

  1. The date, time and place of the meeting.
  2. The names of members present.
  3. The substance of all official actions and a record by individual member of the roll call votes taken.
  4. The names of all citizens who appeared officially and the subject of their testimony."

On advice of their solicitors, some townships obey the “letter of the law” and include only minimal details. Why? Lawyers want to minimize exposure to legal challenges that can arise from minutes containing info that is open to misinterpretation or that reflects some unintentional bias. As an elected official, however, I feel it is my duty to provide as much information about the as reasonable and I expect the minutes to offer more than what is the bare minimum as required by law.

Minutes are historical records of the Township. Consequently, in my opinion, they should include enough detail to help the next Township officers 6 to 10 years down the road when the same issue pops up again. It’s also helpful for voters who would like to know the opinions of their elected officials. When I research issues, it’s helpful to see the nature of the discussion that occurred previously.

Let me cite an example. At a recent Newtown Board of Supervisors meeting there was a good deal of discussion about a Resolution Definition. The draft minutes did not include any details about comments made by residents or the Supervisors regarding the resolution. For example, the draft minutes only stated “Resident [name] commented on the resolution.” Also, the minutes did not record who voted yea and nay, but merely stated the resolution passed 4-1.

Clearly, the draft was in violation of Sunshine rule #3 above. More importantly, I believe it should have included more details of the conversation, such as “Resident [name] expressed concern about the costs associated with the resolution.” I am happy to report that the final approved minutes included this information.

I examined the minutes posted to local municipality websites to see if they provided what I consider adequate details and if they are searchable. The results are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: State of Minutes on Selected Local Municipal Websites
Streaming Indexed Video

Just as it is easier to find an item in the minutes if the document is searchable, it is also easier to locate an agenda item in the streaming video of meetings if the videos are “indexed.” Figure 1 shows an example of an indexed video recording of a Board of Supervisors meeting. Viewers can jump to any section of the video that corresponds with an agenda item merely by clicking on the item in the “Meeting Index,” which is displayed side-by-side with the video.

Figure 1. Indexed Video on the Middletown Website. The index appears in the left box under the tab “Meeting Index.”

Every local municipality that features streaming videos of meetings – EXCEPT Newtown Township – includes video indexing (see Table 3).

Table 3. State of Streaming Video on Selected Local Municipal Websites
Website Analytics

Using Google Analytics it is possible to determine the number of total website page views and visitors, and to identify poorly performing as well as top performing web pages, where visitors came from (referrers), which pages they land on, how long they stayed on the website, time of day of access, and visitor demographics such as age, gender, and geographical location. This information is critical for making improvements to the site and ensuring easy access to important information.

According to the BCCT report, “Of the 52 respondents, 35 municipalities said they could not access, did not track or had incomplete data for how many people accessed their websites in 2017.” The 15 responding municipalities with that information had a combined total of 826,326 visitors to their websites. Bensalem, Middletown and Horsham garnered the most visitors in 2017, at 168,653, 103,795 and 103,260 respective viewers.

The Newtown Township website had 42,539 unique visitors overall in 2017. For a month-to-month comparison, there were 3,690 unique visitors in May 2017 and 1,953 unique visitors in May 2018. According to the BCCT report, nine of the 18 websites it analyzed — including that for Bucks County — experienced declines in traffic between May 2017 and May 2018.

At the June 13, 2018, BOS meeting, Josephine Vlastaris, Chair of the Technology Committee, recommended using Google Analytics to monitor traffic and bounce rate for the township website, and make changes to pages as needed. The Committee suggested that the following reports be created on a monthly basis:

  1. Page Views (e.g., the 25 most visited pages)
  2. Demographics of Users (Age/Gender distribution; )
  3. Top 25 Landing and Exit Pages
  4. Behavior Flow (where do visitors go from landing pages)
  5. Device Categories (desktop/mobile/tablet)
  6. Browser source, i.e., Chrome, Firefox, IExplorer

Even though the Township already has a Google Analytics account set up to measure and report on its website traffic, the BOS decided against creating periodic reports citing a lack of need to do so.

Secure Web Sites

Google recently announced that having a “Secure” website is the easiest thing site owners can do to boost search engine ranking. You can tell that a site is secure by looking at the website address (URL). Addresses that begin with “https” are secure (“s” stands for secure). A major benefit of HTTPS is security and encryption. User information remains confidential and secure because only your browser and the server can decrypt the traffic, which prevents hackers stealing sensitive information from or injecting malicious content into web traffic. Only 4 of the 9 (44%) municipal sites listed in Table 3 are secure sites – the Newtown Township website isn’t one of them!
Social Media Use

Of the 53 local government websites studied by BCCT, 35 (66%) had active Facebook pages, 25 (47%) were active on Twitter and 13 (25%) had YouTube channels. Newtown Township has no social media presence (see Table 4).

Table 4. Social Media Used by Selected Local Municipalities

However, the Newtown Police Department has an active Twitter account (@Newtown_Police) and Facebook page.

This means that whenever the Township would like to reach out to citizens via social media, it must do so through the Police Department! Recently, for example the NT Police Twitter account poisted this notice for hiring a Township Recording Secretary:

The tweet linked to a CrimeWatch page for further information.

Posted on 07 Feb 2019, 01:30 - Category: Communication

Glossary of Municipal Terms

MS4, PRD, LST, EIT, SALDO, Liquid Fuels Program, Impervious Surface, Sketch Plan, Conditional Use, Spot-Zoning, etc. These are just some of the acronyms and terms a Newtown Township Supervisor Definition has to learn to do his or her job.

Perhaps more importantly, township residents must understand these terms if they are expected to participate in local government.

To that end, I have put together a Glossary of Municipal Terms on my website (here), which is available from every page on the site (see the big blue button in the righthand column).

This is my personal glossary of terms that I believe are relevant to Newtown residents. Hopefully, it will help residents when they read the minutes of meetings or watch Board of Supervisors (aka BOS Definition) meetings on Cable TV.

This Glossary is more than a simple list of terms and definitions. It also includes links to related information and resources on this and other websites such as news summaries, blog posts, videos, podcasts, newsletter articles, etc. Therefore, it can also be used as an index to information on this site.

Whenever you see this button Definition on a page you will be able to access the definition of the term, acronym, or phrase immediately preceding it. 

I will continually add many new terms to the Glossary to make this a truly valuable resource. If you have any terms you'd like to see added to this Glossary, contact we via email: john@johnmacknewtown.info

Posted on 08 Oct 2018, 01:38 - Category: Communication

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This site is paid for and approved by John Mack: john@johnmacknewtown.info
The opinions expressed here are solely those of John Mack and do not represent the opinions of any other person or entity.
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