May 21, 2018
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Somerset County website embraces transparency

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — The Somerset County Communications Center is setting itself apart from the rest of Maine’s emergency dispatch community by making its minute-to-minute activities available on the county’s website.

The intent, according to Michael Smith, the county’s communications director, is to make information that’s part of the public record anyway available to anyone with a computer and an Internet hookup, though the 5-month-old Web offering initially was aimed at helping journalists.

“This to me is the perfect way of getting the information out,” said Smith. “It gives reporters the information they need to decide if they want to pursue something.”

The dispatch log — which is stripped of sensitive and confidential information before it is published — has been offered online since October 2010. Booking photos from the Somerset County Jail, which include the offenders’ name and charges against them, started being published about a month later.

Smith referred to this year’s April 1 snowstorm as a prime example of the value of the website. In a four-hour span that day, dispatchers handled more than 50 reports of accidents, which in turn required about 150 follow-up calls to various agencies.

“In a situation like that, they’re busy doing other things,” said Smith.

The website was developed last fall by Steve Damren, a systems specialist for the county. Damren said that since the website went live, it has attracted nearly 15,000 hits on the dispatch logs and 88,000 hits on the booking photos. Another part of the new website is accessible by Maine law enforcement agencies, which streamlines the process of tracking down information on criminals — often eliminating the need to place telephone calls and then wait for responses.

“They find it really handy, especially if they’re trying to find a photo of a certain person,” said Damren. “We have even heard that inmates have downloaded their booking photos to put on their Facebook pages.”

Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, said law enforcement agencies in Maine use numerous methods to share information with the public, ranging from printouts to one-on-one interactions with reporters. Somerset County is the only agency he’s heard of that provides up-to-the-minute online information.

“I think this is the best example we’ve got so far of a government agency using technology to be as transparent as possible,” said Leary, who is a freelance reporter for the Bangor Daily News and other news organizations. “All of this information is already public record, so they’re just taking it the next step. It’s a great advance and gets to the issue that so much of this stuff that’s public record could easily be put up online.”

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Police Chiefs Association, said he knows of no other law enforcement agencies in Maine with a website like Somerset County’s. He said he suspects that what is holding many agencies back is a lack of manpower to maintain a website.

“The only problem, particularly with the photos, is that they’ve got to follow up on it,” said Schwartz. “If you get arrested and your picture is put up, and then the district attorney decides not to prosecute you, the picture should come down at that point.”

Schwartz also said the size of the Somerset County Communications Center, which also dispatches for 19 Kennebec County municipalities and numerous town police and fire departments, is to its advantage.

Peter Smith, Somerset County’s technology services director, said the dispatch and booking website is only one example of how the county is taking advantage of technology since county commissioners created an information technology department in 2007. Among those efforts are collaborations between state, county and local governments to help each other develop more Web-based tools.

“Using these resources is a new wave that’s moving through the state,” he said. “We’re going to see a lot more of it.”

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