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City Council eyes proposal to create new Web presence

By J.R. Williams -- jrwilliams@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- City Council members are entertaining a proposal from Web development firm Live Elements to enhance the city's presence on the Internet.

The Winchester-based company is developing a social networking Web site -- at www.winchester-live .com -- in hopes that it will grow into a community for city residents on the Web.

The site launches Sept. 1.

Live Elements is asking the city to invest in the project in exchange for serving city-provided content, such as videos and announcements, to the site's users.

Rob Hustick, the company's CEO, briefed officials during a meeting of the City Council's finance and health, education and welfare committees on Aug. 18. In prior discussions with Jim Deskins, executive director of Economic Redevelopment Authority, Hustick proposed that the city spend $7,000 to become a "founding sponsor" of the project.

Members of Winchester Live would be directed to a personalized home page where local events and businesses are featured. Users would interact through message boards, "community interest groups" and networks of friends, according to the Live Elements Web site.

Winchester Live would in part be financed through targeted advertisements based on the user's preferences, Hustick said.

Joining the site will be free, he said, but registration only will be available for residents over 18.

City officials didn't commit to spending the money Aug. 18. Instead, at Councilman Art Major's suggestion, they agreed to form a temporary committee to discuss the proposal and the city's communication strategy.

Councilman John Willingham said the city wants a way to better disseminate information to the public and create a forum for residents to address elected officials online.

"We need to extend opportunities for citizens to have their voices heard," he said.

Winchester already has a comprehensive Web site at www.winchesterva.gov. Officials said they aren't ruling out adding elements to that site with Live Elements' consultation.

Hustick said the city would benefit from his company's building efforts to advertise the new site.

"These online communities are not effective just because you build them," he said. "It's not that the technology isn't capable, it's that no one is marketing it."

But interim City Manager Robert Noe, as well as other council members, expressed concern that the city should not spend the money outside of the typical budget process.

"To be a founding sponsor would put us in a compromised position," Noe said.

Further, Noe said in a letter to council members that "to place an individual member in a position where he is empowered to speak publicly 'on behalf of the city' could unintentionally serve to usurp and undermine the proper functioning of the governing body."

Major proposed that several members of city staff, including Deskins, Councilman Milt McInturff, and a school system employee be part of the committee to study the issue.

In other business, council members gave permission to Carla Taylor, director of the city's Department of Social Services, to hire a part-time benefit program worker.

Councilmen Michael Butler and John Hill were absent from the meeting.

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