The newest consumer fraud: the Internet

Last week the City of Cashmere, which is nearly broke, announced it will be spending $14,975 to develop a new city website. That might seem like an insignificant expenditure, but the problem is the costs don’t end there. There is the ongoing charge of $200 per month for hosting the site and apparently no one has attempted to quantify the cost of city staff tasked with the responsibility for updating and maintaining the site.

The Internet is an exciting technology that holds much promise for improving communications but it is far from free and can be a huge consumer of the user’s time and providers’ financial resources.

I have been involved in the promise and the threat that the Internet provides to newspapers and media in general for nearly 20 years. Ten years ago I chose to invest my retirement funds in my own future – I bought three small weekly newspapers in Chelan County. My vision was that the Internet was going to revitalize community newspapers by providing them the tools to expand their frequency and improve the quality and immediacy of local news. I am more convinced than ever that I was right.

Imagine a local community newspaper that maintains a website that provides you a daily video news update just like a local TV station. Imagine a video “game of the week” between the local high school and their biggest rival broadcast live on our local newspaper website. Imagine a local website that gives you access to professional state, national and international news sources. These are all things we are working on for each of our now five community newspapers. But I will be the first to tell you that making this all happen takes time, new staff and of course money.

So, if I am so high on the promise of the Internet why am I calling it the newest consumer fraud? Because in its current unrestricted format, the Internet provides a forum for some of the most misguided and misinformed “experts” to spew an endless amount of inaccurate facts and even deliberate anonymous lies. And web service developers promise customers that the web’s “exploding” audience guarantees their new website will solve all of their problems. Truth is every generation has enjoyed their share of con men and charlatans that extract wealth from a misinformed and sometimes gullible. Today’s Internet hustlers are just a high tech version of an ages old game and buyers must be wary of untested and unproven claims.

Yes there is value in websites and Internet marketing, but only if you clearly understand your products, your customer and the most effective way to reach them. Internet search engines and email are becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. Unless your primary customer is a geek-head, chances are that all that money you spent on your website is just unseen filler on page 27 of the average search engine response. Maintaining a vibrant and interesting site takes constant effort and driving customers to your site takes persistent promotion. Every website owner must ultimately answer the question about whether the investment of time and money is truly productive in meeting the stated purpose of their organization.

The people who have studied Cashmere’s website proposal include some of the city’s most prominent leaders. And they cite many of the hoped for “benefits” for a city website. Benefits like a citywide business directory and the ability to publish their own public notices, city council agendas and minutes of city council meetings.

That is where I have concerns for the Cashmere website project and similar websites being considered by government agencies across the state. Is it really a legitimate function of the city to maintain a directory of local businesses or publish their own public notices?

In Cashmere there are currently at least four business directories available for Cashmere Businesses. There are three telephone directories including “yellow pages” and earlier this year, the Cashmere Valley Record and Chamber of Commerce teamed up to develop a local business directory as part of the “Keep the cash in Cashmere” promotion. That directory was not only distributed in our local newspaper but was mailed to all non-subscribers in the city. Now the city is contemplating using city staff time to update and maintain an on-line directory of city businesses. Will the city be increasing the cost of a business license in order to cover the cost of maintaining an on line business directory?

And it should be troubling to all of the citizens of Cashmere and other municipalities who may be considering such sites that the city may eventually be in charge of publishing its own public notices on their own website. Who will ultimately be responsible to oversee the accuracy and completeness of those notices? There is already a move afoot in the state legislature to allow government agencies the opportunity to place their public notices on a website instead of in the local “newspaper of record.” That effort is being advanced in order to “save money.” There is a real danger here. Currently, state law requires all public agencies to notify all media that have requested it, of any changes to their scheduled meetings or any special meetings. But if the city can meet its obligation to provide notice by placing a notice on its own website – somewhere – who will be checking the henhouse to make sure the fox hasn’t been making a visit? Residents would ultimately have to be responsible to check the city website regularly to see what their elected representatives are up to. And those without a computer would just be left in the dark.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some good uses for a government website. If the site were used to make public records more accessible then that would be a legitimate use of a city website. Access to city ordinances, zoning codes and maps and the complete city budget would be quite helpful especially if it included historical information about the city’s finances.

In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that my newspaper, the Cashmere Valley Record, is currently the newspaper of record for the city of Cashmere. As a result, last year the city paid us $5,200 to publish its required public notices. The loss of that revenue would not put us out of business. But if the city doesn’t properly notify citizens of its decisions and meetings as currently required, those decisions can be repealed and the local representatives can be fined for their failure to follow the law. What happens when those officials are in complete control of the means of publication?

I understand the appeal of establishing a city website, but whether it’s in Cashmere or Oroville, let’s make sure the site is a tool for keeping citizens informed and government officials accountable.