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Emmitsburg Web site issues debated again

Chris Patterson
The Gazette

Emmitsburg Board of Commissioners President Bill O'Neil is asking the board to hire a professional to handle the town's Web site, and to give up the current site handled for free by a volunteer.

O'Neil's argument centers on what he says is the need for accountability by the person who handles government information. He believes having some authority over the Web master, either by actually employing him or paying a consultant, would elevate the quality, reliability and timeliness of the information on the town's site, he said Wednesday.

The town's Web site www.emmitsburgmd.gov is managed by area resident Mike Hillman, Webmaster of www.emmitsburg.net as well as the town government's Web site www.emmitsburgmd.gov.

The issue of whether to use another person to update the Web site has been raised before.

Last year, then-town Commission President Patrick Boyle pushed to drop Hillman's services, citing mistakes in the online information and a lack of integrity in Hillman's work, he said.

Boyle began attempts to separate the town's Web site from Hillman following a public disagreement with Hillman about the town's founding date. Hillman, president of the Emmitsburg Area Historical Society, said his research proved the town's founding date was 1785, not 1757, as is published on signs greeting visitors to the town.

Boyle believes in the 1757 date, and expects the town to celebrate its 250th birthday in three years.

Now O'Neil is carrying on that issue. O'Neil, former president of Citizens Organized to Preserve Emmitsburg (COPE), was supported by Commissioner and COPE member Art Elder during the discussion about the site at Monday's town meeting.

Others who spoke in support of cutting ties with Hillman included COPE President Catherine Forrence, Vice President Harold Craig and member Betsey Forrence.

Catherine Forrence said she has been frustrated with the town's Web site and wants to see it changed.

"I've been frustrated in the past, and I'm sure a lot of people have, with the inaccuracies and omissions on the site...Errors are commonplace," she said, adding that she found many grammatical errors in the town minutes and agenda, as well as gaps in meeting minutes, she said.

Speaking in opposition to changing the Web site were Mayor Jim Hoover and Commissioners Joyce Rosensteel and Dianne Walbrecker.

Hoover said at the meeting that Hillman has updated the site quickly every time he has asked him, and the information available online not only reflects all the information the town has given, but provides easy links to other related information.

Rosensteel said she could not support making any change to the Web site situation when the town has so many financial commitments regarding replacing the town's ailing sewer system.

Estimates for Web services can range in the thousands of dollars for setup and additional monthly fees for updating the site, Hoover said.

Walbrecker also said the site has been well maintained and appreciated the service Hillman provided. She asked town manager Dave Haller if Hillman updated the system when new information was given to him, and he said it was.

Hillman, who was not at the meeting, told The Gazette on Tuesday that the site is updated quickly, but that Forrence was also correct about her comments regarding typos and a lack of information sometimes.

The town meeting minutes and agendas are only put online when they are given to him, he said. The town staff can't give him the minutes until the board approves them, which doesn't usually happen until a month later, at the next town meeting. And the agenda won't be given to him until the board approves it, which will often delay when it is posted, he said.

Town clerk Donna DesPres said Tuesday that the problems mentioned by O'Neil and others at the meeting were not in Hillman's control. She said the Web site hasn't been a priority and that Hillman quickly updates everything the town sends him.

"Oh, you wouldn't believe how quick. I think it's amazing," she said.

DesPres said she has sent him things and expected he would wait to update it until he got home from work, but it would be online "right away."

She said the town staff is not able to update the system the way he does.

DesPres said town manager Haller sent a memorandum to the staff Tuesday telling them about a new plan for more organization and responsibility in handling the town's Web site. She said the site would be reviewed once per day for timeliness of updates.

O'Neil said Wednesday that regardless of what the staff says about their responsibility for the problems, he still believes the site should be managed by a professional.

He is also concerned about the political leanings of Hillman because Hillman asked former Commissioner Ted Brennan to moderate an online forum during the town's election season last spring.

O'Neil said only Brennan and Commissioner Dianne Walbrecker, then a candidate, participated in the discussions. O'Neil, who was offered the opportunity to put his biography and political positions on the Web site, turned down the offer because he didn't want to open himself up to attack, he said.

Hoover said O'Neil's concerns about separating the Web site from Emmitsburg.net is understandable, but that Hillman has never done anything improper with what the town has given him for the Web site, nor has there been any untimely delay in posting information.

He said the town has hired and is training two people to work on information to be posted on the Web site. That information will then be given to Hillman to post. The mayor said he is prepared to discipline those employees if the work is not done to the standard the town expects.

O'Neil said the issue is "not going to go away."

"It's an issue I'm going to focus on. I want all town materials for the meeting uploaded. I want every doggone sheet of paper uploaded to the Web site," he said. "...I suspect it won't be done because it's too much for a volunteer and his volunteer staff to do. How many balls can you have in the air before you start dropping them?"

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