SOUTH TOMS RIVER – There is a lot happening in the small borough of South Toms River, and the governing body wants the public’s input.
That’s why, around Feb. 19, the borough will launch a new system for residents to communicate with officials in ways they haven’t before. They are asking residents to go to PlanetCivic.com to register and be part of the conversation.
PlanetCivic is a new online platform launched recently by a New Jersey resident. The municipality can ask questions of the residents and get immediate feedback.
“We have limited attendance at our council meetings,” Council President Sandford Ross said in a press release. “We need feedback, so we are essentially bringing the council to the residents. Families don’t have to choose between a council meeting and family time. Use this platform from your couch and have your voice heard.”
Asking questions are similar to having a non-binding referendum, business administrator Joseph Kostecki said. The governing body will ask for feedback on issues from time to time. But unlike a referendum, it won’t cost money to hold an election. The borough might ask about any of these topics:
- Beautification and environmental projects: Councilman Greg Handshy, chair of the Environmental Commission, said in a release that he wants to see residents give input on how to beautify the borough, such as Crabbe Road. “There are many ways of beautifying our borough, and this is another effort to get everyone involved in the process,” he said.
- Community Development Block Grants: These provide state money for special projects. The public could be asked what projects they want to see done, Kostecki said.
- Marijuana legalization: Gov. Phil Murphy had said that he would like to legalize recreational marijuana use in New Jersey, which caused several towns to change their ordinances to ban shops from selling the drug. South Toms River might reach out to its residents to determine how they feel, he said.
- Summer garbage: Some residents might want twice a week pick-up during the summer months.
When a situation like this comes along, the town could send a letter out to residents. It would cost $300 to do this and there’s a very small amount of people that send letters back, Kostecki said. The borough is paying $499 a year for PlanetCivic.
“If we can use this digital platform, if we do more than one (question), we’re already saving money and getting a better response from residents,” he said. They also reach out to residents using texts, emails, Facebook, Twitter, robo calls and the borough web site.
“There are many voices in this borough, with many fine ideas,” Mayor Oscar Cradle said. “We live in different times and people no longer have as much free time as in the past. We owe it to ourselves to go over and above the norms to hear their ideas.”
PlanetCivic was founded by Javier Guardo, with the sole purpose of fostering discussion. It would be a constructive dialogue, unlike some social media which degenerates into negativity.
“People want to get involved, but it’s difficult for them,” he said.
PlanetCivic has different modules that a town can install. The most important one is the voting module, he said. An official can put out an idea for people to discuss and vote on it.
Another important module is for volunteers. People can work on ideas and contribute time.
“People want to help, but don’t know how,” he said.
When a resident signs up, they need to prove that they are residents or business owners in town, he said. Otherwise, there would be concerns that people would take over the conversation who don’t have the community’s best interest in mind.
Voting data can be confidential, he said.
The amount of information public officials get can sometimes be limited when it comes to meetings, he said. They only receive input from people who show up to meetings and who have a specific issue. Sometimes, an issue can get hijacked by a vocal minority. To an official, they react to a small group coming out to a meeting because that’s all they see. With this online connection, they can get a broader cross section of the populace and find out what the majority really wants.
“Information, in the end, is what we need to make better decisions,” he said.
The Borough has several large-scale projects transforming the municipality, and believe PlanetCivic will greatly assist throughout the planning phases and beyond. “As we move into redevelopment planning, we will engage this new platform for resident and business feedback, to get it right the first time”, stated Councilman and Redevelopment Liaison, Tom Rolzhausen.