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Helping You Submit “Open Records” Requests

February 13, 2007 Media 8 Comments

Ever considered submitting your own request for public records but didn’t know how to go about the process? Well, the first step is to review the excellent ‘Missouri Sunshine Law’ webpage from the Missouri Attorney General. This resource is well organized and informative. To get you started it even includes sample language.

The next step is to know who to submit your request to. With so many departments and agencies it can get confusing. To make life easier, I requested a complete list of the “custodians of record” for the City of St. Louis. I took the 7-page Word document and put it in columns to that it wouldn’t be so paper consuming. You can download the 4-page PDF file here. So now you’ll know, based on which department has the records you are seeking, who you should contact. Sadly, the list prepared in December and just received by me last week is already out of date. A first step before mailing/faxing/emailing off your request for records would be to call that department and confirm the person listed is still the current custodian of record.

Maybe if the city receives enough requests for rumored projects we’ll start to see them being more forthcoming rather than wait until the week the legislation is being introduced? Yeah, I know, probably not but one needs to attempt to be optimistic every so often.


French & Patterson on KDHX’s Collateral Damage Tonight, 7pm

February 12, 2007 Media 1 Comment

Not to be confused with the British comedy team, French & Saunders, but Antonio French of PubDef.net and myself will be guests tonight on KDHX’s Collateral Damage program hosted by DJ Wilson and Fred Hessel.  With only a half hour program we certainly won’t be able to touch on all the items in the news of late.  Tune in at 7pm, 88.1FM.


City Sidewalk Parking on KMOX Radio Tonight, 11pm

January 8, 2007 Accessibility, Downtown, Media, Parking, Politics/Policy Comments Off on City Sidewalk Parking on KMOX Radio Tonight, 11pm

Following on the excellent report by KMOV Channel 4 TV earlier tonight (see post), I will be a brief guest on the Mark Reardon show on KMOX radio, AM 1120 talking about the same issue.  That will be in the 11 o’clock hour.


FAQ About Blogging

December 22, 2006 Media, Site Info 11 Comments

I get quite a few questions from people about blogs, often how to set one up.  So I thought I’d put out some of the basics, Q&A style.

What is a blog?

A blog is simply a type of website, the name is short for web log. Typically a blog is, per wikia website where entries are made in journal style and displayed in a reverse chronological order.” A blog can be anything the author(s) makes of it from talking about their personal life to writing about international events.

How does a blog differ from a website?

A blog uses “Content Management Software” to organize how the content is presented on the site. The CMS handles all the tasks of setting up the look and where to put information, thus allowing the writer to very simply focus on writing. A traditional website requires great skill to build a good website or a program and some knowledge about how to put it together. But even once you do a traditional website in a program such as Frontpage you lack common features found on CMS such as the search function, archives, comments and RSS feeds.

What is the deal with this whole “RSS” thing?

RSS is better than sliced bread! It stands for Real Simple Syndication but you don’t need to remember that. As we all read more and more websites it has become increasingly time-consuming checking them all out. Rather than spend time going to website after website to see if something new has been added you simply need to “subscribe” to that site’s RSS feed. This can be done in a number of ways.

For those of you using Windows with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Browser I’ll save you the Macs are better lecture, you’ve probably heard it before. But, IE is a horrible browser and simply can’t handle modern life — you are much better off with Firefox (free download). From Firefox on Windows or Mac or Mac’s Safari browser you can easily subscribe by clicking on the RSS symbol in the address bar. If you use a web-based email program such as MyYahoo from AT&T the home page gives you an option to subscribe there as well.

So what do you get when you subscribe to a website with an RSS feed? In some cases you only get the headlines, in other cases you get a headline and excerpt. The beauty is you can quickly see which of your subscriptions have new content, saving you time by not visiting sites that are not updated.

I have roughly 300 or so websites bookmarked via RSS. Some of these sites only add a post every few weeks, while some have multiple posts each day. With the sites that rarely update it is no big deal having them one the as I know when they’ve added something new — that is the only time I visit.

Another way to think of this is like your investment portfolio, if you have one. You track all your stocks in one place to know what is happening with each one rather than have to visit each and every company’s investor webpage. With RSS you are determining the information you want to track.

So RSS is a blog thing?

Yes and no. Every CMS program that I know of for blogs includes RSS by default. But RSS is not limited to blogs. For example, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has an RSS page listing all of the various RSS feeds you can get from them. These include as diverse RSS feeds as “Top Business Headlines” to “Yesterday’s Most Read Headlines” to “Garage Sales” in classifieds. The popular Craigslist has RSS feeds for each an every one of their section, quite handy if you want to focus on a few areas. Every major media outlet now has RSS for their content. Ride the bus a lot and what to know if Metro has any service alerts? Simply subscribe to their RSS feed for alerts and you’ll know right away in your web browser if the do. Basically, in today’s world any website that gets new information needs an RSS feed so the world knows about it.

My organization or group doesn’t want to “blog”, we need a real website right?

Wrong! No offense to the web designers out there but many businesses, non-profits and individuals (such as aldermen) can do much better with a CMS-based blog than with a traditional website. Even large corporations are using blogs to reach customers, GM has their FastLane blog which includes information posted from various members of their managment team, including VP Bob Lutz.

Most individuals and organizations that consider a website do so because they have some information to share with others. The type of information you have to share will determine what is best for you or your group. If all you have is very static information that never changes then a traditional website is likely a good choice for you. However, if you constantly have content to add to a site a blog is the way to go.

One example of how to effectively use a blog would be for a neighborhood organization/development corporation. With a blog for the organization you can use static pages for basics such as who the staff is, what the office address and phone number is, and maybe a list of board members and regular committees (each committee or even could have its own page too).

Now say they have 5-6 committees set up and each of those committees is having meetings and such. If the organization is like most it is volunteer based and by the time the committee chair has a chance to write something up for the newsletter it is past the deadline. With a blog each committee chairperson could be given the access to add new content to the organization’s blog. Rather than worry about writing an update with a given number of words for a newsletter they could simply type out a “post” just as they might if sending out an email. If they have documents to reference those can easily be uploaded and linked to. Because we don’t want to exclude those who don’t have internet access, the newsletter editor can now take information from the organization’s site to use in the print edition. This allows the organization to be up to the minute with information as well as control the message about a particular subject.

So I need to install the Content Management Software on my computer?

Nope! That is the beautify of this, it is all web based so no software is added to your computer. You’ll need a more recent browser (Safari, Firefox and possibly IE7) so that 10-year old computer running Windows 98 is probably not going to cut it. You’ll also need DSL or other high-speed internet because dial-up is going to be painfully slow.

A blog must be expensive?

Not at all. You can actually set up a blog completely free. Yes, free! Sources for free blogs include:

With these free services you may end up with a longer URL such as stlrising.blogspot.com or jenniferflorida.wordpress.com, although your own domain names are possible with these, I think (although don’t ask me how).

Even pictures and videos don’t require any costs at all. You can use free sites like Flickr or YouTube to upload and include images/video in your site. Going back to our local organization example, you can upload pictures from an event to Flickr and then post them on your blog — the only cost is your labor. Suppose you already maintain an email list of members, with this you can send them a link to the post that includes the pictures rather than possibly clog their email account.

If you want to build more sophisticated sites you’ll want to step up to a hosted form of CMS. You can work through someone locally that can host the site for you as well as do the basic setup or you can buy your own hosting space and do it yourself. In other examples you might get your own hosting account but use a professional to help with the setup. If you are able to use an FTP site and other behind the scenes type stuff for a webpage you can probably handle this yourself.

Who Hosts UrbanReviewSTL?

I use Dreamhost for my websites and email hosting, although many such firms exist. At $120/yr (or $96/yr if you pay for two years at a time) you’ll likely have more bandwidth and storage space than you’ll ever need. They include a “one-click” install for a WordPress blog and very complete instructions in case you get lost. They also include one free domain name when you sign up.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I get a referral fee for everyone that signs up with them that references me. Of course, you can sign-up with them without doing so (or use someone else). My main concern is getting more organizations and elected officials online so that we can effectively communicate relevant information. If you are considering such a hosting account, I can actually save you $25. Use the promotional code 314urbanreview and they’ll take $25 off your initial registration, regardless of the plan you pick. I’ll still get a small fee while you can get your blog set up for less than $100.

If a 501(c)3 non-profit group out there wants to do this but truly can’t afford the $120 fee shoot me an email (steve at urbanreviewstl dot com) and I can work with you to get the out of pocket expense down to nearly nothing for the first year, helping you get started. I’ll want to verify you’ve got a staff person or volunteer who is capable of doing the set-up and adding content. If I really like your group I may volunteer to do the setup for you as long as I know it will get used on a regular basis. Again, the idea is to get as many organizations out there as possible posting as much information as possible.

Google Will Find my Traditional Website, Right?

Oh, sorry, probably not. Well, that is not entirely true. Your website will end up on page 4 of someone’s Google search while my post about your organization will end up on page 1. Those RSS feeds we discussed earlier along with some things called “pings” help Google, Yahoo and others know you exist and know what you are writing about.

Here is a good local example. If you Google for Save Cleveland High you’ll get saveclevelandhigh.org as the top response — the search engines have the website name & URL down. However, if you Google for Save Cleveland School you’ll find on page one a post by the Arch City Chronicle, one from this site and one from Toby Weiss’ B.E.L.T blog. I got to page 8 of the google search and still hadn’t found a direct link to the actual main site – not good. That means, depending upon the search someone performs, they might read someone else’s site before getting to your site with your message. If saveclevelandhigh.org had utilized blog software to build their site or at least the “news” section (you can mix traditional methods with CMS) they’d have RSS and pings on each news item. This alone would have likely guaranteed them page one ranking on Google regardless of the variations on search terms used. For the record, the Save Cleveland High website is an exceptionally clean and attractive design.

How is this Whole Communication Thing Important?

We have lots of great people, great organizations and great events happening in the St. Louis region. Too often these exist in a vacuum — nobody else knows what you’ve got going on. Or you are planning a big project and you want to communicate lots of details that are hard to convey in a public meeting without either A) getting it wrong or having it misunderstood or B) boring everyone to death. With your own site you’ll increase your chances a blogger or local news outlet will notice your event/project/organization and give you additional coverage. If you have images to share it is easily done. If you have files such as PDF or Word documents these can easily be added to a hosted blog so that everyone can reference the same documents, even if your office is closed. And finally in an organization there are simply not enough hours in the day to answer all the phone calls or return all the emails — with an effective website (aka blog) you can easily share information in a consistent manner and have it reach the widest audience possible. Many of those repetitive questions that keep you from getting more done are perect areas to address on a website.
The more others know about your organization, your programs, and your events the more likely they are to contribute their time and/or money. Or perhaps the more likely they are to finally decide to take the time to attend an event or send you an email with some feedback. As a community we can benefit from an increased level of communication.

Do you have any other Real World Examples where a Blog Might be Effective?

Oh boy, do I.

  • Each of the Democratic ward committees in the city (all 28) could have their own blog. The central committee could buy one hosting account for $120/year (even less if they use the promo code above) and host all 28 sites. The central committee site could have basic information and a link to all 28 sites. They could take it a step further and have a syndicated site where they bring in the most recent 5-10 posts from the 28 wards.
  • Every elected official in the entire St. Louis region should have a blog. Period. Not only are they an effective campaign tool but they are a great way to reaching many people in a fair and consistent manner.
  • Some of the really small municipalities in the region that do not have websites currently due to limited budgets could put together an effective website using the power of content managment software. This would be a highly cost-effective way of providing basic information on elected officials, various boards, notices of up coming events (including official events such as council meetings) and so forth.
  • Neighborhood, school, church and other civic organizations can all have an affordable and effective presense on the web.
  • Special causes can be more effective with a blog. One recent local example was Praxair Watch which sprung up quickly after the explosion on the edge of Lafayette Square. The site hasn’t been updated since June but in the midst of the controversy it was updated often and a great means of spreading the word. Such a site also kept the official neighborhood organization out of the middle of things.
  • Organizations such as the Landmarks Association,
  • Even major groups like the RCGA (St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association) lack RSS feeds for their news items, reducing the ability of a blogger like me or, far more importantly, an out-of-state CEO, to easily track progress in St. Louis. Ditto for the Downtown St. Louis Partnership.

OK, any Examples of How this CMS is used in Places Besides Personal Blogs?

An example of a complex website built using Content Management Software (CMS) is the YMCA of Greater St. Louis. The main site has an RSS feed for overall YMCA stuff but suppose I want to track what is going on at say the Carondelet branch only? Yes, they have an RSS feed that goes out for each and every branch so that I can chose to obtain information as specific or as general as I want. This level of website development requires a professional and it does not come free. However, it does allow the average non-computer geek at each branch to “post” new information to their site simply by logging into the web-based system and fill out information in a few fields — the CMS software handles the rest. The sites stay current because the staff does not have to be website geniuses to update them! As a communication tool, the CMS-based website is considerably better than a more traditional website that requires expensive website design software and a Ph.D. in computer science to post a simple announcement.


St. Louis’ International Award-Winning “Strategy for Renewal”

Two weeks ago this Wednesday St. Louis won a “World Leadership Award” in the category of Urban Renewal for its submission entitled “Strategy for Renewal.” The mayor’s website was full of excitement and the RCGA sent out a glowing press release. I was sceptical as nobody knew what we submitted. On Friday I received a paper copy after submitting a request under Missouri’s Sunshine Law. Here are a few tidbits.

Mayor Francis G. Slay sent a letter accepting the invitation to submit an entry on April 1, 2006. In that letter he writes,

“I am writing to let you know that we do plan on submitting an entry, and we would welcome the favorable publicity that we would receive if we won or even if we were a finalist.”

Our entry was submitted to the organizers on July 10th, 2006. Here is a quote from the opening page:

After losing 500,000 people in 45 years, the City of St. Louis has reversed the trend and become a model for “rebuilding” cities around the world. New residents are returning; businesses are starting to meet the growing market; and we have initiated education reform to make our public schools again, schools of choice.

Education reform? Since when is criticizing the school board education reform?

We have turned the corner. After decades of record population loss, growth is occurring. The U.S. Census Bureau ranked St. Louis 43rd in percentage population growth over the past year. I believe our strategy has become a model for other cities to follow.

While I will agree the massive droves of people fleeing the city has stopped I don’t know that we can say the city is growing. I’d say more like stabilized. Furthermore, I don’t know this is due to any policies enacted by Mayor Slay or simply the fact we hit bottom. And I find it rather amusing this strategy that is supposed to be a model for other cities had to be obtained via Missouri’s Sunshine Law regarding open documents.

The document talks about a number of objectives and strategies, some which have been done, some of which are in process and others that I am not aware of any effort to complete. One area that seems a bit of a stretch is around the city’s Strategic Land Use Plan. From the Strategy for Renewal:

A critical stage in our Great City renewal strategy was to provide a concise roadmap to direct public and private resources to where we needed them most. Until 2005, St. Louis operated under a Master Plan conceived in 1947.

That plan called for wholesale demolition of 35% of the City, coinciding with demographic changes. Conceived before the loss of 500,000 people, the Plan offered no strategy for addressing wholesale urban disinvestment. The Strategic Land Use Plan adopted in 2005 has changed how we think and do business. We have identified those parts of the City where public investment is most needed, to help stimulate private investment that builds on our strengths.

All levels of City government act in a coordinated manner to create nodes of growth. Subsequent efforts then connect “these nodes”, creating corridors of positive change. From a new housing project; a loan to a small business owner to repair a building; grants to remove lead paint from the schools and homes to enhance the welfare of the children; a combination of small incentives helps to stabilize declining neighborhoods.

Gee, last time I checked we still operate under that 1947 plan. Yes, the land use designations have been updated but our archaic zoning is still in place. Earlier this year, when arguing before the city’s “board of adjustment” regarding the McDonald’s drive-thru issue, I suggested the South Grand the area was to have certain character, as described in the land use plan. They told me, in a public hearing, the land use plan does not trump zoning. The mayor can tell people in London all he wants about this land use plan but in reality until we have new zoning it is worthless. The implimentation page for the land use plan admits as much:

Zoning designations are continually problematic in the City, and more often than not new development requires a variance from the existing zoning code. It is anticipated that once this plan is adopted zoning designations will be modified to conform to the plan and “overlay districts” may be developed and adopted that are specific to the character of specific neighborhoods and development areas.

While the mayor and his staffers are flying off to London to accept awards we are still waiting for meaningful action. Why we’d go to all this trouble to enter a competition and then not share the winning entry is beyond me, unless the mayor and his staff didn’t want to be held accountable for their strategy?

But you don’t need to take my word for it, I’ve uploaded the original submitted for judging and the presentation for your review.

  • Strategy For Renewal (34-page PDF, 1.4mb)
  • Presentation from 12/6/06 (49-page PDF, 2.9mb — I believe the actual PowerPoint would have had some video clips and such, I will likely request the actual PowerPoint as this PDF file seems incomplete. Plus you will need to rotate it to view)

Check them out and share your thoughts below. Even better, ask your alderman what he/she thinks about the objectives, strategies and current progress!