Town Web sites improving, if you can find them
What’s of more interest to people: the local school system or the local mosquito control district?
The mosquitoes, of course – at least, that’s what the designers of the Litchfield town Web site seem to think.
You can search the town’s site from now until your computer becomes obsolete without finding out where Campbell High School or other schools are. But the mosquito district? It’s just one click away from the home page!
That intriguing fact was discovered during an informal stroll through the online offerings of towns and schools in the Nashua region, part of The Telegraph’s Sunshine Week examination of electronic public records.
The survey led to two main conclusions:
1. You can find an incredible amount of information with the click of a mouse, information that not long ago would have required a couple of trips to town hall and maybe an argument with a stubborn clerk.
The best example of this is Nashua’s assessment information, which can be searched several different ways on the city’s Web site, allowing instant access to such information as how much property tax your neighbor paid over the last three years, who owns every commercial building in town, or the assessed value of City Hall.
If you are curious about anything in your town or school district, whether the phone number of the nearest elementary school, the hours of operation of the dump, or the method of registering your car (which can be done online in many communities), you should start with your municipal Web site.
But that leads to the second discovery:
2. An equally incredible amount of information is late, missing, or so hard to find that it might as well be nonexistent.
This issue especially crops up in smaller towns, where designing and updating the Web site is a low-priority part of several different jobs. A classic example is town or school district calendars for official meetings, which are often updated by a variety of volunteers or part-time staff.
As far as Mont Vernon’s online calendar is concerned, for example, the only regularly scheduled events are Planning Board meetings and story time at the library. If you want to know about the next selectmen’s meeting, you’ll have to check the agenda thumb-tacked to the bulletin board next to the front door of Town Hall.
But even the best Web sites have flaws. Consider Nashua’s assessment search again.
To find the assessed value of City Hall, for example, you search under its address (229 Main Street) – but if you format the search a little wrong you won’t find it at all, and if you format it correctly you’ll have to hunt through every property owned by the city. That’s 395 separate records ordered by their account number, whatever that is. Good luck!
As a result, you can’t absolutely depend on the municipal or school Web site as the end-all and be-all. But it’s a great place to start.
A few more interesting tidbits:
Schools vs. towns
The biggest example of oddly missing information concerns schools on the towns’ Web sites.
Schools are invisible on Litchfield’s town site, but it’s far from alone in this.
Milford’s town site, for example, features data on West Nile Virus but not on its schools, while Hudson’s site acknowledges local schools with a single link tucked deep in the pull-down Town Departments list – halfway between “recreation” and “sewer,” as it turns out.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the site for the City of Nashua features “click here to learn more about Nashua’s schools” prominently on the home page, with a photo of happy kids. No uncertainty there.
Perhaps this difference reflects the different legal structure between New Hampshire’s cities and towns.
In towns, the schools are a separate government entity, with separate budgets and separate legislative bodies that have no connection to the folks designing and maintaining the town Web site.
In cities, on the other hand, schools are just another department under city hall, to be included online with public works and the library.
Finding the Web site
In the early days of the World Wide Web – back when it was still called the World Wide Web – the idea was that the address of a site would be somewhat predictable.
If this had stayed true, you could find your local town Web site by following a formula. Thus “town.lyndeborough. nh.us” is an official government Web site for the town of Lyndeborough in New Hampshire in the United States.
Alas, this formula fell apart long ago. For example, Hudson is a town but its Web site is “ci.hudson.nh.us” which indicates that it is a city; Brookline uses “www” instead of “town”; Litchfield uses a dash instead of a dot before the “nh”; and Pelham threw up its hands and decided to grab “pelhamweb.com” even though “.com” is supposed to indicate a private company.
School district Web sites aren’t much better.
Hollis-Brookline takes the predictable route with “www.sau41.k12.nh.us”, indicating that you have found SAU41 (the official name of the two-town district), a kindergarten-through-grade-12 public school system in N.H. in the U.S.
Merrimack’s address (“www.merrimack.k12.nh.us”) is the same idea but a bit more user-friendly, while the Nashua School District went with the simple “www.Nashua.edu,” although “.edu” was originally designed as the suffix for college Web sites.
Easily the weirdest school Web address belongs to the system for Amherst and Mont Vernon: “sprise.com.” (It’s pronounced “surprise,” but if you spell it like that you’ll be taken to a shopping Web site.)
School board chairman Steve Coughlan says this URL was chosen by the late Michael Galen, the district’s technically minded business administrator, when the district separated from Milford in 1992.
It stands for “Souhegan enterPRISE” after the district’s high school, and was chosen because Galen had ideas of becoming an ISP for the area, which at the time lacked broadband. That idea has faded but the name remains.
“Occasionally we bring up the idea (of changing the address) and bat it around a bit. But last time we renewed it, we renewed for (several) years,” said Bruce Chakrin, director of technology for the district.
As a result of this, the best way to find your local Web site is to use a search engine, like Google.
There’s a small problem, born of history, however: Virtually every place in the region took its name from an older, existing community.
As a result, searching for “Brookline” will find the city in Massachusetts, “Manchester” will find the city in England, and “Hudson” will find a bunch of companies that took their name from the river in New York state.
Fortunately, the solution is simple: Just add NH, no periods needed.
Even “Greenville NH” is accurate in Yahoo, Google or Microsoft search engines, despite the fact that at least two dozen other cities named Greenville exist in the United States, most of them bigger than ours.
In fact, using these search engines are often the best way to drill through a municipal Web site to get what you want.
For example, searching “Hudson NH dog license” will find the town clerk’s page describing the cost and process of getting a license; “Litchfield NH schools” will find both Campbell High School and the site for the Litchfield School District; and “Wilton NH recycling center” gets you straight to “www.ci.wilton.nh.us/ Recycling%20Center/Home. html,” which you probably wouldn’t have thought of on your own.