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Come May, Weare will launch its new website

Weare’s website is perhaps best described by a banner across its top – “A part of yesterday in touch with tomorrow.” In the middle of the outdated page, a header announces “Coming Soon –New Website!!” Beneath it, visitors can view, but not yet click through, a preview of the modern website to come.

Last July, the town began the process of updating its web page. Now, officials are loading information into the new site with the goal of taking it public May 1.

“It is just a more attractive site and should be easier to use all around,” said selectmen Chairman Tom Clow. “People come in and talk about the need to improve communication and community . . . and that is what this will hopefully do.”

Across the state, municipal websites have increasingly become the way officials communicate with residents and how the town makes a first impression on visitors.

“More people are going online for so much of what they are trying to do in their lives, so having a very informative local website is sort of expected by a lot of people,” said Bill Letsky, vice president of Virtual Towns and Schools, a company that helps towns, including Weare, design their websites and develop content. Letsky manages the company’s New Hampshire market and said a strong majority of municipalities across the state have a web presence.

“People go to the website before they go to town hall,” said Stephen Fournier, chairman of the New Hampshire Municipal Association Board of Directors. There is no official protocol for websites, he said, and web pages can run the gamut, from in-depth sites that offer videos, minutes and ordinances, to basic ones that post town office hours.

“Easy to use, lots of information . . . I think that’s the key,” said Fournier, who also serves as Newmarket’s town administrator.

In Weare’s case, the new town website will have more details, links to town resources and online forms people can print from home instead of having to go into town hall to pick up, Clow said. The site is already active for town officials, and it’s where they have been uploading recent meeting agendas and minutes.

They are no longer putting most of that information on the old site, in part because the web page software is outdated and no longer supported, said Town Administrator Naomi Bolton. Until the site goes public in May, the town is posting meeting information in public places.

“We hoped to have it going a little earlier than this,” Clow said. “With budget season we decided to put a lot of it on hold.”

The town administrator will oversee the website, but individual departments will be able to post their own information.

“We don’t really have an IT person, which a lot of towns have,” Clow said. “It would be nice, but probably wouldn’t happen in the near future.”

The rise of town websites has had an affect on communities, since many more residents are informed, Fournier said. In the past, they would have to go to a meeting, watch it on television or get the minutes from town hall if they wanted to find out what was happening.

“Now they can go online and read what happened,” he said. People are no longer going to annual town meeting and voting whichever way their neighbors do, he said. “They are doing the research before they get there.”

The trend is to provide 24/7 access to information, and the demand is only growing, Letsky said. “It’s evolving, but it’s not there yet.”

One feature customers commonly request is the ability to create a town Listserv, which is used to send email notifications, said Letsky, who has more than 70 municipal clients in the state. “Down the road, what towns are looking for is the ability to increase the interaction and use things like fillable forms.” In that case, instead of printing out materials, residents could fill out paperwork online, and possibly use an e-signature and submit it to the town.

The biggest challenge, Letsky said, is getting everyone on board with the transition to the internet. “There are some folks within some communities that are resistant to change,” he said. “It has come a long way.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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