City halls deluged with digital correspondence 

E-mail and Internet access are making city officials ever more available to opinionated constituents, but the medium is not without its share of snags.

San Mateo County residents are relying more heavily on e-mail as a way to connect with elected officials or offer their two cents on the latest development proposal or environmental review.

"People don’t write handwritten letters anymore," said San Carlos City Clerk Christine Boland, who sees her fair share of e-mails.

For example, San Carlos residents flooded City Hall with e-mails last spring and summer when the topic of new athletic fields was a hot-button issue across the city, Boland said.

Many officials are enthusiastic about the chance to interact with residents. Some, including Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel and San Carlos City Councilman Matt Grocott, hand out their personal e-mail addresses.

"E-mail is a much more efficient way of documenting information and contact details than scribbling notes [from a phone call]," Nagel said.

It’s also a way for shy — or busy — residents to chime in without speaking at the City Council podium or trying to phone City Hall during the work day, according to Redwood City Councilman Ian Bain, who sometimes responds to residents’ electronic missives late at night.

But the convenience of e-mail also comes with inevitable technological snags. In Redwood City, the spam-filtration system is sometimes so aggressive that residents’ messages wind up tagged as junk mail, according to Planning Manager Jill Ekas, who often encourages locals to follow up letters with a copy sent through the postal system.

"Because we get such a high volume of e-mail, I’m trying to give residents good advice about how to offer their comments," Ekas said.

Other times, residents’ e-mails are bounced back because they’ve attached a zip file or a document contaminated with viruses, according to Steve Toler, information technology director for Foster City. About 85 percent of the e-mail the city receives is spam, which makes finding notes from residents a little like looking for a needle in a haystack, he said.

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Beth Winegarner

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