NEWBERRY – Politicians have nationally embraced social media as a major campaigning outlet, but Newberry City Commissioner Jordan Marlowe’s main concern is still community communication two years after his election. He maintains an active Facebook page and a personal website as a way to directly link to the people. He wrestles with the fine line between online participation and attendance at physical commission meetings twice a month, and knows the time that must be taken to learn how to articulate information to the public.
“I don’t know that politicians have grasped the importance of social media, and how you can use it as a data collecting device,” Marlowe said. “I ran on a platform consisting of ‘let’s open the doors of communication. Let’s get the word out so we know what’s happening so the residents can have a say.’”
When he set up his social media over a year ago, he did not realize the drastic inequality of online and physical meeting participation. Steps are being taken to adjust the style of the commission meetings to accommodate a live streaming format, but this just scratches the surface of the communication issue. At the root of the matter is the public’s level of feedback and participation. Marlowe utilizes Facebook as a way to pose questions and spark conversation, but his website is a major forum for in-depth discussion.
He provides summaries of the commission meetings on his personal website, which in turn gives him a direct connection with residents’ misunderstanding and concern. “People will take more time than it takes to vote, writing lengthy responses, well thought-out responses—certainly more time than going into a voting booth,” Marlowe said. “The responses can matter more, but I don’t know how to bridge the gap by communicating through social media and then relating it to the commissioners in the same powerful way. There’s not a way quite like residents showing up saying they will hold the commissioners to what they say.”
People participating on the website are mostly middle-aged or older, but many students are involved as well. Marlowe was told at first that the website would be of little use, but recently he averages 4,000 hits a week on his personal website. There are about 5,000 people in the city, and over 400 people follow him on Facebook. This is in contrast to the city’s average voter turnout of 500. This suggests that there is a desire among the citizenry for more direct communication.
He keeps us all informed on City business,” said Linda Woodcock, a local retired teacher. “That is why I use it. That is why everybody uses it. He asks for input. The best part about it is being able to respond and that he wants your input. He is the only commissioner that does this.”
The communication issues lies in the fine-tuning. Marlowe wishes that all the commissioners would utilize social media, even though it is a lot of work. “To me, the more of us who are putting out info are getting feedback, then the more we can compare it,” he said.
The fine-tuning is not just the logistics of changing the style of the meetings, but also the commissioners’ perspective on the attendance level. Low attendance could be viewed as apathy towards City business. But the manner in which he posts on his media draws out an “unbelievable amount of hits” said Woodcock.
“His site shows not only what you think, but you get a feel for what the overall community is thinking, too,” she said. “As a commissioner, you at least feel like he is listening and taking into account what the public is wanting or saying.”
“The passion people show on Facebook shows me they want to be involved, but that they aren’t taking the next step,” Marlowe said. “Something is keeping the people from being involved in the physical meetings.
“I can see the commissioners placing value only on those who attend, but we need to revolutionize the way we do the meetings so that people can be elsewhere and still be involved.”
There is inconsistency of communication between the commission as a whole and the residents. Marlowe communicated with over 500 people on the issue of whether or not the City should fund employment of the Martin Luther King Community Center or run it with volunteers, and the majority was against the funding. At the commission meeting, about 10 or 12 people came to the meeting and appealed for the funding, and one person was against it. Marlowe knew that as a commissioner on the dais, it looked as though funding the center would be the majority opinion, but that there were many opinions that were not presented.
“I think all politicians are very reactive to who is in front of them. A commissioner can take up an issue and make it their own, but by and large, especially with this commission, we are responsive to the citizens.” He values the idea of live streaming because the residents could watch the issue they are waiting for, but also understands that despite the integration of the Internet in people’s everyday lives, face to face is always more effective. Social media is the first step, but the second step is facing the commissioners.
“At one point the citizens must take an initiative,” Marlowe said. “And I have to believe that if a high school teacher can get 424 people to listen on Facebook and 4,000 to read a website, that if the City did the same thing, it could get exponentially more.”
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