Towns' tangled web(sites)

If the idea of looking for information about a selectmen's meeting on your town's website sounds absurd, read on. We recently suggested that volunteer representatives of social service agencies should be able to submit their requests for town funding electronically, rather than requiring them to appear in person. This week, we are begging towns themselves to take advantage of the technology available to keep residents informed of town business and events.

Perusing Waldo County town websites in many cases is an exercise in futility. Those that exist are mostly relics from a time when web design was a mysterious skill possessed only by a few enterprising nerds, who often were better programmers than designers.

The results are kaleidoscopes of color and mixed fonts. Out-of-date information, broken links and error messages abound, probably owing to the sites requiring just enough technical savvy to discourage town clerks, selectmen and other municipal officials whose jobs include making information available to the public. Today, it's not uncommon to find town calendars displaying the wrong year, random old meeting information at tops of pages, while newer information is displayed only after scrolling through heaps of disorganized and unrelated posts.

For anyone seeking information about your town, a website such as those described above makes a poor first impression. Thicker-skinned visitors may leave without having found anything useful.

The good news is web design is much easier than it once was. WordPress, Squarespace and other companies offer foolproof website templates that require no technical expertise for free or cheap. Maine's shift toward a creative economy means there are plenty of freelancers willing and able to put together more pleasing presentations of information. Even a Facebook page would be a giant step up for many towns.

Putting a town's best foot forward not only makes a good first impression, but also helps residents who may not be able to attend meetings keep current on town business. Accurate calendars also are a must — the days of people gathering at the store in the center of town are starting to make a comeback but still are not the place most people go to find meeting notices. Even if a posted meeting legal notice happens to catch the eye, it is nice to be able to verify the date, time and location with an online calendar.

Making contact information available for public officials also is a crucial public service. Even if there's simply a phone number at the Town Office (with a way to leave a message), it allows residents to weigh in on local topics with elected and appointed officials.

Meeting minutes and videos are a nice addition to some municipal sites, as is historical information, with or without photos. Like it or not, people who want to know what's going on in town are increasingly looking online for answers. It's time for public officers to embrace that.

Need inspiration? We've seen excellent examples of municipal websites for Belfast, Winterport, Lincolnville, Northport and Searsmont. Current information is easy to find, most links are functional, and the layout is pleasing.

Fix your municipal websites. Make them functional and useful. Please.