Rock Hill has big plans to boost its social media presence with expanded Facebook and Twitter pages and an online comment site that lets city residents comment on hot issues.
"Not everyone can come to a council meeting," said budget director Steven Gibson, tasked with heading up the initiative. "This is the way they prefer to communicate.
"If we're not there, we're viewed as old-school and as not being transparent."
By April, the city plans to launch "Open City Hall," an online forum where people can share ideas for a downtown park or identify problem spots for traffic congestion, among potential examples.
Goal: Improve communication
Rock Hill has had a reputation for keeping tight control over information.
Neighbors accused City Hall of deception over a construction and debris landfill proposed on the south side in 2005. The city initially called it a "recycling and reclamation facility." Six years later, the unbuilt project is tied up in lawsuits.
More recently, homeowners in Miller Pond said they did not get advance warning of the city's policies for annexing subdivisions.
Social media can help ease conflicts, Gibson said, by letting residents share concerns and exchange information.
"It's not only about us giving them a chance to say something," Gibson added. "It's about us listening to what they say."
That would be a welcome change, said Scott Ball, a neighborhood activist involved in a 2008 dispute over airport expansion plans.
City officials "must improve the way they communicate in order to remove the stigma of the good ol' boy network and move on with governing in the 21st century," Ball said.
Mike Sabatini, former president of the Creekside homeowners association near Northwestern High School, said his work schedule makes it tough to stay involved.
"If it's a way of getting the word out, I say it's OK," Sabatini said. "I would use something like that. I use the Internet on my Blackberry, so it's always with me."
The new offerings reflect a high-tech culture promoted by new city manager David Vehaun, who encourages the use of real-time data and statistical trends to drive policy-making.
Vehaun devised the city's performance dashboard, a public online tool that uses graphs, charts and timelines to track goals such as responding more quickly to 911 calls and increasing attendance at cultural events.
"The big problem we face in government is getting information out in a way that really makes sense," Vehaun said after taking office in October. "Most of our information is available. It's usually not in a format that makes sense to anyone."
Mayor Doug Echols supports a city-run online forum, as long as it doesn't become a venue for anonymous hate comments. People should give their names when posting, Echols said.
Engaging the public
Area schools have already embraced social media. Rock Hill school board members Jane Sharp, Ginny Moe and Jim Vining write blogs on school-related topics.
Mike Waiksnis, principal at Sullivan Middle School, maintains a podcast and blog with reading tips and reminders on exam schedules.
The developers of Riverwalk, a massive redevelopment project at the old Celanese site, use Facebook to give updates on a riverfront trail and bicycle racing venues.
One woman posted a request for horse trails. "As of now there aren't any plans to include horse trails in our development," the host replied. "If this changes, we will let you know."
Communities risk falling behind, experts say, by not using online tools to reach out to constituents.
The most active social media users are 18- to 34-year-olds and women, according to Netpop Research, a San Francisco-based research firm studying Internet trends.
Women in their 30s are the heaviest contributors, while non-contributors tend to be older and male.
"If you're not engaging in social media today, you're not a communicator," Marcus Messner, a social media professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told USA Today.
But the medium carries risks. The city of Charlotte, for example, faced criticism last year over restrictions on its Facebook page.
Concerned they would be sued on free-speech grounds if they deleted nasty comments, city officials set up a Facebook page so city staffers would be the only ones who could view citizens' comments.
In Rock Hill, city officials could control content and remove postings unrelated to the topic, but they wouldn't delete postings based on viewpoint, Gibson told council members.
"Our intention is to listen," he said, "and to respond... and for that to influence our decisions."