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Twitter Town Hall Provides Residents with Unique Access

People tweeted messages to the mayor in the city's first ever online town hall meeting.

Last night's “Twitter Town Hall” meeting provided residents with quick, personalized responses from the mayor, giving them unique access they likely would not receive at a traditional city meeting.

In the city’s first ever online-only town hall meeting, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl responded directly to residents’ questions via tweets (Twitter messages) and was forced to adhere to the space-crunching, 140-characters-or-less confines that limit all messages sent on the micro-blogging website.

The range of topics discussed during the online town hall included the city’s relationship with Evanston Township High School students, the city’s ongoing Veolia waste transfer station lawsuit, possible street repairs, the city’s “brothel law” housing regulations, Evanston’s relationship to Northwestern University, a potential skateboard park, questions over seemingly unwarranted parking tickets and a complaint over dog poop on city-owned tennis courts.

The online chat began at 6 p.m. and lasted 62 minutes. In that time, 18 participants sent 83 tweets, a number that includes the 49 messages sent by Tisdahl. All but four of Tidahl’s messages were directed toward answering specific concerns posed by her online audience, with the remaining few purposed toward reminding her audience of upcoming city happenings, as well as opening and closing the online meeting session.

Because Twitter does not require users to post their real identities on their profiles, it is nearly impossible to accurately determine who participated in the online session. But based on self descriptors listed on participants’ profiles and the nature of the questions asked, the meeting likely comprised local businesses owners, a few Northwestern students, at least one Chicago resident and a handful of Evanstonians.

A unique format

The Twitter format did not seem to limit Tisdahl’s ability to answer questions. She used terse replies, wrote in online shorthand and sometimes fired off back-to-back messages to adequately respond.

But the advantages of the online format really shone through when the mayor was able to refer participants to online resources by sending them a link to a city webpage.

When Ryan McMahon (messages from Twitter account @saucerpass19), a self-described copywriter and soon-to-be-proud dad who lists Evanston as his home town, questioned what services residents would lose should Evanston Township be dissolved, the mayor responded quickly.

“No services would be lost,” tweeted Tisdahl from the @CityofEvanston Twitter account, before following it up with a second message.

“Check this out for more information http://cityofevanston.org/government/intergovernmental-affairs/advisory-referendum-on-township-dissolution/,” Tisdahl wrote next.

McMahon seemed particularly pleased with the speed of his response and the direct access the meeting provided.

“Best. Town hall. Ever,” McMahon tweeted a few minutes later.

Tisdahl responded to other concerns by referring residents to city phone numbers, promising to forward messages to certain city departments or through simple explanations of her own.

Scott T. Palmer (@stpalmer), who lists his hometown as Chicago on Twitter, asked the mayor if there were any plans to repair Green Bay Road.

“We're trying to get federal funding,” Tisdahl responded. “we have a plan but no money. it's a priority, it's d next major street slated 4 improvement… cost of the project would wipe out our Capital Improvement Budget citywide for a year.”

At 7:02 p.m., Tisdahl sent out her farewell tweet, thanking followers and announcing the conclusion of “our first Twitter Town Hall,” hinting that there may be more to follow.

At Monday night’s City Council meeting, Evanston resident Betty Esther voiced opposition to the online-only meeting, saying that it would exclude people without access to technology and those who were unfamiliar with Twitter. The City of Evanston responded Tuesday by saying that the meeting was not intended to be exclusionary, and instead was meant to include residents who for one reason or another could not attend regular city meetings.

The meeting's action could also be followed through a page on the city's website that provides steaming updates from the City of Evanston twitter account. However, the mayor could only be messaged through Twitter.

Meeting participants directed their messages at the mayor either by typing “@CityofEvanston” before their tweets or through the use of “hashtags,” which are a way to track conversation threads across twitter by typing a word directly after a pound sign (#). The meeting’s “hashtag” was “#askTisdahl”.

At least one Twitter user who participated in the town hall session seemed to have created their Twitter account for the sole purpose of the meeting, as that account’s first-ever tweet was a question directed toward the mayor.

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