MILL CREEK — The city of Mill Creek has its sights set on open government through investment in new tools that promote public access.
Mill Creek boasts a new website with several online features to help people stay posted without schlepping down City Hall.
The woman behind the website is city clerk Kelly Chelin.
“I envision it to be this 24-hour government,” Chelin, 37, said. “It was my way to give people a way to access records and search things anytime, anywhere.”
Chelin said she wants to make civic participation more convenient. The mother of two girls, ages 2 and 5, understands that most people don’t have time to attend meetings or keep close tabs on local government.
That’s why Chelin insisted the city keep up with digital trends.
“I just believe most people are getting their information online,” Chelin said. “It’s their community. We work for them. It’s really vital that we know what their priorities are.”
That goal has long been Chelin’s mission. When she started at the city in 2001 she was 23. She had no information technology background, but built Mill Creek’s first website using software from Staples. Her efforts earned statewide recognition as of City Clerk of the Year in 2002.
At Chelin’s urging, the city last year assembled a team to design a new website.
After 8 months of working with CivicPlus, a company that specializes in government websites, Mill Creek went online in August.
Brian Davern, who represents parks and recreation on the web team, said calls from people complaining about problems accessing online information have dropped significantly since the site launched.
The city plans to invest $33,100 over several years for the site and other digital tools. It expects to spend about $12,000 in annual maintenance fees for the site and its new features.
One allows people to give make comments and track responses from city staff.
People can apply for jobs and track city employment opportunities.
Another feature lets people sign up for of news alerts tailored to their interests. There’s a community calendar page and a discussion board.
“I want the public to know we’re watching this,” Chelin said. “There’s a real concept around here that we work for our citizens.”
Chelin spearheaded a project in 2010 put most city records in an electronic database, which allows users to search, examine and print documents.
“I get open government,” Chelin said. “I don’t want to make it a cumbersome process for people to get the information they’re looking for.”
It took staff over a year to scan all city resolutions and ordinances into the system since Mill Creek was established in 1983. The site also includes city council minutes dating back to 2005.
It stores 3 years of audio recordings of council, design review board and planning commission meetings. Chelin posts the recordings usually within 24 hours.
“We work for the public,” Chelin said. “That’s what we do”
Chelin has completed hours of training in handling public records requests, mostly through the Washington Cities Insurance Authority.
Though Chelin processes non-police department requests, other city staffers have training in the laws.
“It’s a priority here because we care,” said Joanna Lee,the police department records specialist.
As a certified member of the Washington Association of Public Records Officers, Lee processes several requests for documents a week.
She said she tries to reverse negative experiences people may have had with police or government agencies in the past.
“When people call a police department, they don’t expect to talk to someone nice,” Lee said. “Don’t come in here with your dander up because you don’t need to. We really do want to help you. If we don’t know, we’ll figure it out.”
That ethos extends from the top of the city staff down.
City Manager Ken Armstrong said it was one of the first things he noticed when he applied for his job just over a year ago. He was immediately impressed by the front desk clerk’s savvy customer service.
“Even though she was one of the lowest-paid people in the organization, she demonstrated a high degree of professionalism,” he said. “I got a very clear sense of what kind of group this is.”
Armstrong credits Chelin, Lee and City Attorney Shane Moloney for their drive to increase public access. He considers investing in technologies that help achieve government transparency, money well spent.
Armstrong plans to hire a part-time community relations person to add to that effort. He expects to take a proposal for the new position to City Council next month.
Armstrong, who previously worked for the city of Seattle and the U.S. Coast Guard, said Mill Creek demonstrates a commitment to serving the people that is unlike many other government institutions.
“There’s a culture and an ethic here that is different,” he said.
Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org.