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Website designed to attract more S.L. residents to city discussions

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SALT LAKE CITY — City leaders hope to elevate discourse and dialogue on leading local issues with a new website dedicated to easing the process of resident input.

Open City Hall, launched in late July, is a monitored public comment forum that, according to its creators, seeks to "bring missing voices into the community dialog."

Operated by the California-based nonprofit company Peak Democracy under contract with Salt Lake City, the site is monitored for decorum and limited to users who reside in the city. All commenters must register to use the site, though they can choose to identify themselves or post as "semi-anonymous" — a status that still indicates the user's neighborhood.

Peak Democracy CEO Robert Vogel said the aim of Open City Hall is to cultivate a polite and productive format for community participation. A rigorous registration process that validates a user's home address helps keep things civil, Vogel said.

"We know more about people who participate in these forums," he said. "That is known to the people who participate. ... They know that we know who they are, and that dissuades disruptive commentary."

The company operates Open City Hall sites in some 15 cities across the country. Overall, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of input breaks the decorum standard, Vogel said.

Noel Walkingshaw in the city's planning office is helping oversee the Salt Lake City Open City Hall and said the goal is to create new opportunities for residents to be involved.

"We're hoping to get comments and engagement on formal petitions from those who don't have the time or energy to come to City Hall and testify at a public hearing," Walkingshaw said. "With this new tool, residents get a voice in the conversation and can do it at their convenience."

Like testimony at city public hearings, comments on formal petitions will be made part of the public record, he said. Eventually, a publicly accessible archive will be created from site commentary.

"We're just starting to get a feel for what we can do with this site," Walkingshaw said. "In addition to policy issues, we're also seeking help from the public on what they would like to see."

Two big local issues — the Yalecrest neighborhood historic district proposal and early design concepts for a new downtown public safety building — are currently up for comment on the site, which is linked from www.slcgov.com. Both posts highlight the format as a two-way tool — accepting public input and providing background information and links to documentation on issues that impact Salt Lake City residents.

Lisa Harrison-Smith, spokeswoman for Mayor Ralph Becker, said early evaluation of the site has been positive.

"Open City Hall is a direct communications tool Salt Lake City is utilizing in line with Mayor Becker's open-government initiative to provide residents with a forum to directly discuss key community issues that impact the future of our neighborhoods," Harrison-Smith said. "We are getting very positive feedback regarding the first forum topics on the Yalecrest Neighborhood Character Overlay District and the public safety buildings proposed site layout, which have attracted hundreds of visitors and participants actively adding to the dialogue about these city initiatives."

e-mail: araymond@desnews.com