Santa Monica Gets Wired: Computer Link to Citizens

Times Staff Writer

Santa Monica is officially "on line."

Starting today, residents can sign on to their personal computers and, in effect, talk to City Hall.

Declaring itself "the city of the future," Santa Monica has activated a new computer network that puts a storehouse of information--ranging from where to get a parking permit to what books are checked out of the local library--at the fingertips of city residents with access to a computer keyboard.

In addition, questions and complaints can be computer-messaged to City Hall, and, the city promises, officials will respond--right to the inquiring resident's computer. Finally, citizens and officials can discuss burning issues of the day in the computer equivalent of a town hall meeting.

When the first message bleeps up on the system's central computer, Santa Monica will be a pioneer in the use of interactive computer networks to enable the public to communicate with government.

Increasingly, cities and counties across the nation are offering some form of public access to government information through computers. The product of an inevitable coupling of technology and civics, the trend is being hailed in many quarters as an important step toward better, more accessible government.

Some people suggest, however, that a system based on the use of computers is elitist and question whether adequate security measures can be adopted to prevent abuse.

"It's something that more and more cities are looking at," said Randy Arndt, a spokesman for the National League of Cities in Washington.

Computer access "makes a city more responsive and efficient," he said.

"There are certain efficiencies to having a computer interface rather than an employee answer a phone or write a letter," Arndt said.

California communities, Arndt said, are on the leading edge of exploring uses of computers to link up with their constituents.

In Pasadena, for example, residents already can browse through a variety of government data and calendars of events by home computer, and a private company contracted by the city expects to add an interactive system similar to Santa Monica's in about two months, said Edwin J. Stevens, president of the firm, EMDA.

In Bay Area cities, residents are using computers to scan library catalogues to search for books by title, subject or author.

Elsewhere in the country, a nonprofit organization in Cleveland offers a computer network through which the public can debate issues and retrieve information, while officials in Kansas City and Tampa, Fla., as part of an IBM-sponsored project called The 24-hour City Hall, have installed terminals with touch-sensitive screens in shopping malls.

What Santa Monica is providing, however, appears to go beyond what most other cities are doing and is a harbinger of things to come.

Lead to Sales

The $350,000 system, called Public Electronic Network (PEN), was donated to the city, with Hewlett-Packard giving the hardware and Metasystems Inc. the software, both hoping that this will be a showpiece leading to sales elsewhere.

Residents are offered four types of services.

The first is the bulletin board, where users can scan a menu of topics and call up for reading such entries as earthquake safety tips, job openings and bus schedules. Also on the menu are agendas, minutes and staff reports from the City Council, Planning Commission and Rent Control Board.

In addition, users can discover how to apply for licenses and permits. Eventually, they will be able to make applications through the computer as well, Assistant City Manager Lynne C. Barrette said.

The second feature is electronic mail. A resident can send messages directly to City Hall with questions, comments or complaints. Answers will appear on the individual's computer screen.

Town Hall

The third element is called conferencing, a sort of electronic town hall. Files will be opened on topics such as the homeless or the pace of development. A resident can enter comments, which will become part of the file and can be read by anyone else calling it up.

Finally, the network gives users access to a computerized library catalogue.

People who want to log into the system will first have to register with the city and sign a pledge to obey computer laws. The contract also relieves the city of liability and preserves the city's right to deny use of the system from anyone who abuses it.

Users are then assigned an identification number and given a 15-page manual. They choose a secret password and dial into the system.

"Welcome to the city of Santa Monica's Public Electronic Network," reads the computer greeting.

For people who do not own computers, terminals will be set up at libraries and other public centers.

Phone Bill

The system is available to residents only. Its use is free, although some residents may see a larger phone bill if they spend a lot of time signed on.

No special software is necessary, and any brand of computer will do, Barrette said. But the home computers must have a modem--a device that enables one computer to hook up with another via telephone lines--and corresponding communication software.

Users will be able to "download," or pull information onto their screens, and those who own printers will be able to produce printouts, said Ken Phillips, the city's director of information systems.

The new network is not expected to do away with the traditional ways the city conducts business. Concerned and angry citizens will still telephone their officials and write letters. Die-hard activists and persistent gadflies will continue to attend City Council meetings held every other Tuesday night.

But for people who work all day or who have little time to visit City Hall, the ability to log on for information at home around the clock will be a valuable tool, City Manager John Jalili said.

"It's especially for those (people) who don't have time to write letters or call" during regular office hours, Jalili said.

The city conducted a survey last year of 1,000 residents. Of those who responded, 33% said they own personal computers and 23% said their computers have modems.

Michael Hill, an activist from Santa Monica's Ocean Park neighborhood, first suggested the computer network two years ago. He said it seemed the logical way to enlist "participants in democracy" in an electronic age.

"To participate effectively (in government), one needs to be informed," said Hill, a counselor at the Venice Skills Center, a public vocational school. "That has meant schlepping down to City Hall, getting staff reports, finding the right staff person, getting the report photocopied. . . .

"This is a marvelous way to access the staff reports, (get information) you want. You can play a truly effective role. People who feel disenfranchised can find a way to be a part of government."

To publicize the network, the city is mailing out brochures.

"Imagine," the pamphlet says, "the city of the future . . . a city where computers keep you in touch with city issues and services . . . a city where useful information is at your fingertips any time of the day, instantly and free . . . that future is now in the city of Santa Monica. . . ."

Danger Warning

There are a few voices of caution, however. Some experts in the field warn of the danger of "technology push"--the eagerness to offer a sophisticated electronic system before the public is ready to use it or officials ready to handle the new demands it brings.

"It may overburden ambivalent department heads and city employees who want to be responsive but aren't getting additional resources," said Judith Payne, a social scientist at the RAND Corp. think tank.

The city's own programmers have been loading data into the system, and there are no plans to add staff. All of the messages from the PEN system will arrive on a central terminal in the information services office on the ground floor of City Hall.

Several officials acknowledged that they worried that the network would create an image of elitism, that the city was catering to the professional well-to-do who own personal computers and that low-income residents would be left out. They hoped to overcome that by installing terminals in public areas, such as the library.

Santa Monica officials say the public-access computer network is a natural evolution from a decision four years ago to start up an internal electronic mail system for council members and top administrators.

Each of the seven council members was given a $3,000 briefcase-size portable computer, and they soon reported saving large amounts of time by discussing ideas and hashing out problems through computer messages. An estimated 600 city employees are plugged into the internal system.

When officials considered creating a public computer system, security inevitably was a major concern. Several cities, in fact, have been reluctant to pursue similar programs because of fears that the computer system could be abused.

Santa Monica consulted numerous security experts who tested the system, and officials believe that they have taken adequate precautions to stop computer hackers from getting into private files and to prevent "viruses" from being entered into the system and destroying data or programs.

The computer network that residents will be tapping is entirely separate from the city staff's internal computer system, but officials have declined to detail other security measures.

City officials are eager to see how residents in the beach city, which is known for its heated politics and liberal causes, will respond to the novel computer network.

It "won't revolutionize the city overnight, but it's a significant step in opening up City Hall," predicted Alan Katz, chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy and a former Santa Monica city councilman.

"My guess is the public will find uses that no one imagined," he said.

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