Sunday, June 7, 2009

Virtual Town Hall gets Press

From the North Port Sun Herald:

Sarasota County residents to weigh in on 'Money Matters'

North Port Assistant Editor

  SARASOTA -- The classic town meeting gets an update Monday when Sarasota County holds a virtual town meeting starting at 6:30 p.m.

  The show will be broadcast on Access Sarasota Comcast TV 19/Verizon 21 and streamed online at

  The town hall, titled "Money Matters," will focus on the county's annual budget process and is part of an effort to engage its residents in county affairs, according to Crystal Pruitt, head of media relations.

  "It's an opportunity to do something new," Pruitt said.

  The virtual town hall, part of Community Connections, is the first of its kind in the county, but there are hopes that it won't be the last. If successful, there could be others regarding different topics on a quarterly basis.

  The cost to produce the town hall is about $2,500, Pruitt said, with the funding coming from various county sources.

  Monday, viewers should be watching a program that is virtually seamless. Friday afternoon, however, everything was abuzz in the Access Sarasota TV studio on the third floor of the County Administration Center at 1660 Ringling Blvd.

  Technical staff -- director, floor director, cameramen and a host of other personnel -- wore a path from the engineering booth to the stark black set where Pruitt, veteran journalist Ken Jefferson and county budget director and panelist Steve Botelho practiced an introduction and various talking points. In the seats audience members will use, county staffers sat as stand-ins, asking questions and allowing tech personnel to set sight lines.

  Jefferson, who is volunteering his time for the event, and Pruitt will be co-hosts. ("We're lucky to get him," Pruitt said of Jefferson.) Pruitt and Jefferson appeared to have a natural chemistry as they blocked portions of the program, which will include taking questions via studio audience and e-mail, telephone and fax, as well as a previously produced segment on the county.

  Concurrent with the program, viewers can blog their comments on*

  County Commission Chair Jon Thaxton and County Administrator Jim Ley will join Botelho as panelists. Off-camera, five to six directors of various key departments, such as John McCarthy of Parks and Recreation, will be available to supply their expertise.

  A key and untested component of the program is a "Money Matters" calculator tool that will allow residents who go online after the show to calculate how much their taxes will be, based on the valuation of their home.

  County commissioners have scheduled a series of budget workshops June 16-17, with another, if necessary, on June 19. The total budget this year is $1.1 billion, but the commission's discretionary portion is $243.4 million, or 22 percent.

  Tom Conway, a 10-year county TV engineer, will direct the show. Dave Hannon is the producer.

  Conway said that he and the TV staff are excited about doing the show.

  "It's not every day we get to do something like this," he said.


*URL is corrected from newspaper article.

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