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Officials using 'Net to keep in touch

| Sunday, April 1, 2001

State officials are spending time online to help constituents.

State Rep. Jeff Coleman, a Ford City Republican who represents parts of Armstrong and Indiana counties, said he works in front of a computer every day.

He and three other officials representing western Pennsylvanians said they all use e-mail and Web sites to communicate with constituents and staff.

Coleman receives 40 to 50 e-mails daily, some when he's on the floor of the House of Representatives. He said the House was wired a few years ago so that legislators can stay in close contact with constituents as bills come up for votes.

'It's a great way to communicate,' said Coleman, 25, the youngest person serving in the House.

Rep. Sara Steelman, an Indiana Democrat, said House members have laptop computers fastened to their desks on the floor and can use them to reach information on bills, amendments, voting schedules and other information.

While the system is handy and saves on paper, it does have one drawback, Steelman said. On larger bills of more than 10 pages, it is more difficult to scroll through information than to simply flip through pages.

MULTIPLE OPTIONS
Coleman regularly talks in person with people in his district about staying in touch with him, including appearances before high school audiences.

Appearing recently at Apollo Ridge High School, Coleman told students to check out his Web site and send him their concerns via e-mail at jcoleman@pahousegop.com .

He refers to his red, white and blue Internet Web site at www.jcoleman.net as an Online Constituent Center. The Web site has tallied more than 1,100 'hits,' or visits, since it opened in December.

Coleman's home page offers various options, similar to those offered by other officials - media links to audio and video information, photos and brief news articles, directions on how to send specific requests, and information about his staff.

E-MAIL MAINTENANCE
Steelman said she usually receives between 10 and 20 e-mails a day, some from constituents, some from staff, some from other individuals, and some from organizations like the Education Commission for the States, which sends her a e-newsletter on a regular basis.

She said one of the things she likes about e-mail is that she can answer some of it immediately if research is not required. She sometimes starts dialogues with individuals through e-mail contact.

Steelman also uses her computer on the House floor.

'Unlike phone and personal conversations on the House floor, reading and writing e-mail while listening to the debate doesn't interfere with anyone else's concentration,' she said. 'I really appreciate the convenience and speed of computer communication, as well as the fact that (it) leaves a record of what you said back and forth, unlike a phone conversation.'

But e-mail does require maintenance.

'I have to keep creating new folders to organize all the e-mails I want to save ... because I have a bad tendency of letting my in-box fill up and then the computer takes a while to open,' Steelman said. 'It's so much more efficient than the phone, and so much less time-consuming than letters, besides not using up paper.'

She said she has noticed that some e-mails are sloppy - bad grammar, incorrect spelling, insufficient grasp of mechanics - but 'some letters are sloppy, too.'

'The only bad parts are when the server goes down, the connection is bad, or the computer eats my folders or automatically archives e-mails without prior notice ... which have happened,' Steelman said. 'However, we seem to be able generally to get things back or reconstructed reasonably successfully, and it's less (of a problem) than misplacing a constituent letter, which is very hard to recover.'

The Indiana resident can be reached by at ssteelma@pahouse.net .

One section of her Web site, which can be reached by going to www.pahouse.net , is Steelman's 'closest to home' page. It presents topics of special interest to her, including education, the Ghost Town Trail and connections to sites titled Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Indiana, Indiana County Tourist Bureau, Sierra Club and James M. Stewart.

PRODUCTIVE USE
Although Congressman John Murtha, a Johnstown Democrat, has a hectic schedule, he tries to personally answer as many e-mails as possible, he said.

'Sometimes, in the rush of the legislative session or when I'm traveling around the district, I'll dictate a response for someone else to type, and if we're getting multiple, identical messages, I'll draft the first one and the staff types the additional responses. As with all constituent inquiries and views, I try to personalize the response because this kind of communication is vital to our government system,' he said.

Computer use has allowed many people to share ideas with government officials who otherwise may not have done so, he said.

Murtha uses the Internet to conduct surveys. 'I've found this to be one of the most productive uses of the Internet,' he said. 'We always get a very strong response.'

His office puts a new survey on his Web site about every other month and is working on a new one right now that he hopes will be up soon on upcoming budget decisions.

This is one of the best elements of the system because it allows for questions and responses that are almost immediate reactions to a speech or breaking development, he said. 'I think it's helped bring more people into the debate and that's always a plus.'

Murtha's site, www.house.gov/murtha/ , features a photo of the veteran congressman with flags waving in the background. E-mail inquiries can be submitted through the site.

He offers a variety of options for visitors, including a tribute to the late Jimmy Stewart with a link to the Stewart museum site, and a response to Indiana Area School District's designation by Offspring Magazine as one of the top 100 districts in the nation.

911 INFORMATION
Indiana County Commissioner Randy Degenkolb, a Republican from the Marion Center area, maintains the county's official site at www.indianacounty.org .

He said computers increase both what can be done and what is expected to be done. '(We're) now getting information that would have come two days from now,' he said, referring to the use of e-mail versus traditional mail. 'And that increases an expectation of a response.'

Degenkolb said one of the things he likes the most about using e-mail is that he can look back through a conversation and be more intelligent about how he responds.

He said the county will be announcing a new link to the county Web site where information regarding 911 calls will be listed. He thinks it will be especially helpful to members of the media who are gathering information and will eliminate the need for 911 dispatchers to spend valuable time giving out details to those in the press.

Degenkolb can be reached at randy@yourinter.net or at rand@indianacounty.org.

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