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July 16, 2013

Villagers have their own public hearings — on the Web

By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer

FRANKLIN — Late shifts at work. Soccer games. A favorite sitcom that’s just too good to miss.

There are plenty of reasons why a Franklin resident might not be able to make a Village Council meeting. But now concerned citizens can have their say anytime with a new website to promote community engagement.

The site, FocusFranklin.com, was launched July 3. According to Village Administrator Amy Sullivan, the idea for such a website has been tossed around for some time. After a community meeting held July 2 that outlined future projects the village government would appreciate some resident input on, Sullivan said, the site became an especially appealing concept.

“It’s a new tool that we are using to communicate with our residents. Traditionally, residents have to attend public hearings or meetings. Now, they can provide input from the comfort of their own home,” she said.

Sullivan explained that the site is formatted with general topics in the form of questions, like a survey. After residents register, they can add ideas or review ideas already posted. They can comment on other users’ suggestions, rate them as good or bad, and engage in conversations about the village and the direction of policy and planning.

“I’m pleasantly surprised, so far. We have 29 participants,” said Sullivan of the site within its first week online. “But there are only 17 ideas. So that means most of the people going on the site are only liking or loving the ideas that have already been submitted. Not everybody is going onto the site and putting in their own idea.”

For the site’s inaugural run, the topics posted by Sullivan for residents to comment on were The Good, The Not So Good, Cable Board Broadcasts, Pedestrian Safety, Show Us What Makes Franklin Great, and Franklin in 15 Years, where residents can describe what the village center would ideally look like in the future.

There’s a range of ideas submitted by village residents on the site already, from major improvement projects to pleas not to make any more alterations. The user dubbed Pat M11 suggested building sidewalks along 13 Mile Road instead of the gravel shoulder currently in place. Russell T4 recommended an ice-skating rink be created during the winter months on the Village Green, though comments advised that might not be feasible without volunteer help from residents to maintain it.

User anne M19 explained on the boards that she’d like to see the village stay the way it is — lush with landscape and little else.

“Trees, and lots of them. Beautiful tall trees and green space,” wrote anne M19 under the topic Franklin in 15 Years. “No congestion in the downtown, no more parking spaces, no modern buildings and no more buildings. I would like it to look very much as it is now. I don’t want it to be a Birmingham or a Royal Oak.”

The price to launch the site was $3,000 for one year, which was funded by a grant from the cable board, Sullivan said. In the future, she estimates, it would cost about $200 a month to run, though she suggested that FocusFranklin.com might not make it past the first year if it’s not deemed a success in engaging residents that otherwise wouldn’t participate in village matters.

The true test, she added, will be in the coming months, as Franklin partners with Michigan State University graduate students to develop a graphically detailed plan for the design of the Village Center. The Planning Commission has been suggesting for some time, Sullivan said, that Franklin create guidelines for what the Village Center should be, largely driven by resident input. With FocusFranklin.com, she hopes that more residents will speak up about what they want to see downtown.

Anyone can register to become a member of Focus Franklin.com. The site is not anonymous, Sullivan said, though users’ privacy is protected and conversations are monitored to prevent abuse.

For more information on the MSU Small Town Design Initiative, visit the city’s website, www.franklin.mi.us. To participate in discussions on the project, as well as other topics concerning the village of Franklin and residents, visit www.focusfranklin.com.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at tesshaki@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1095.