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Open Book

Bethlehem candidate urges electronic transparency

by Jason Chura on August 11, 2011 · 1 comment

With Bethlehem town supervisor Sam Messina’s decision to not seek another term this year, Bethlehem residents find themselves presented with innovative approaches to local government in the upcoming election.

Front-runner Kyle Kotary, a Bethlehem Town Board member since 2005, has already received the blanket endorsement of the Bethlehem Democratic, Independence and Republican committees. Kotary’s See Through Bethlehem proposal is a progressive, modern approach to open government communication, in which he calls for integration of the Bethlehem town website with Twitter and Facebook and for all documents that would be publicly available under the Freedom of Information Law to be proactively made available through the town website.

The Town of Bethlehem has taken steps to make government more “customer friendly” over the past few years, including improvements to the town’s phone systems, website, and online assessment and registration services. The town board also began posting meeting agendas and public documents on the town website. Kotary considers See Through Bethlehem to be a continuation of those measures.

“It’s their government,” said Kotary. “They are not just the residents and the stakeholders, but they are the owners of the company and they should have a right . . . to any and all information.”

The proposal also calls for Bethlehem to upload video from all town board and committee meetings to YouTube and for the town to seek a means to broadcast the meetings live. By uploading town meetings to YouTube, Kotary hopes to give residents a faster alternative to Bethlehem’s current system, where meetings are recorded and archived with the help of the Bethlehem Public Library and later broadcast on public-access Channel 18.

According to Kotary, the cost to implement the program is minimal, as the proposal utilizes free online services to disseminate information.

“What we’re talking about with See through Bethlehem is truly modernizing local government by not only upgrading and improving what we communicate, but how we communicate,” said Kotary.

According to Kotary, if the proposal is adopted, Bethlehem would be among a handful of towns in New York to implement such a program and the first town in New York to do so by ordinance, mandating that future elected officials continue with the tenets of open government laid out by the proposal.

Kotary plans to pursue the See Through Bethlehem initiative whether he is elected town supervisor or not.

John Clarkson, Kotary’s opponent for the supervisor seat, is a 20-year resident of Bethlehem with 30 years of experience in state government, including years in the Budget Division and as executive director of the Commission on Local Government Efficiency. Clarkson currently is a consultant and advisor for government efficiency at Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress and has served on the Bethlehem 2020 advisory group for the past four years.

Through his Bethlehem 2020 involvement, Clarkson said he “became aware of several long-term issues that weren’t being acted on, including a budget imbalance that’s growing.”

“We need to look at shared services, government modernization, and other changes to structurally balance the budget,” he said. “I’d rather look there first than look at simply cutting services. I’d rather try to do things differently where we can.”

Clarkson is proposing combining municipal and noneducational school services such as maintaining buildings and grounds, servicing vehicle fleets, payroll, purchasing, back office financial trans, and eliminating redundancies to save money for both entities.

“It’s the schools that attract people to a community, and town government should recognize that and work with the school district,” said Clarkson.

Clarkson said he intends to pursue a fiscally responsible agenda and instill a sense of civility in local government that he hopes will guide the town’s development in a positive, sustainable direction and encourage smart local development.

“The business community will react well to a less political and more professional and civil town government,” said Clarkson.

Kotary said he too intends to revisit and reevaluate the town’s comprehensive plan, to pursue a fiscally conservative government, to focus on more local green technologies and to foster economic development by attracting tech companies and IT jobs. Kotary also has stated his commitment to the development of public spaces by integrating local bike trails and sidewalks.

Kotary said he seeks to balance a fiscally conservative approach with innovative and progressive government. “All too often people think those are mutually exclusive,” he said. “Well, they are not.”