by Eric Spaeth
For those of you who, like me until fairly recently, may not know what a “portal” is, I think I can clarify. A portal is just a website that has a particular purpose, and that purpose is something like a town hall bulletin board – a big and active one.

The CHCA is considering whether we should make one of our own. At first it seemed that there was a rush to figure this out or else someone else might beat us to it. But that’s already happened, so now, presumably, we can take a deep breath and give the question the care and discussion it warrants. Portals are not cheap and side effects seem likely.

One of the obvious questions is why would we need more than one portal – or two – since, as it happens, AOL and WHYY have both decided to make these for us. The answer seems to come down to control: What if these existing portals don’t represent Chestnut Hill as we’d like? Money seems to be another consideration. Some think that having a portal is an investment that will pay big financial dividends, while others suggest that only the expense is certain and Chestnut Hill is not in the business.

While I find the arguments in Jim Albrecht’s recent letter (“Your Patch isn’t big enough,” Nov. 15, Chestnut Hill Local) squarely convincing, I also feel that there is a germ of something important in the portal movement, and that something is engagement.

For communities to prosper, their constituents have to feel engaged, to feel like members, not outsiders. If you’re among the few residents who have been coming to CHCA meetings you’d know that this is an area of concern to some members of the board. Membership is down.

It’s no secret that one reason that engagement is considered important is that once you have someone’s attention it’s easier to sell them something. A portal could be very useful in promoting awareness of Chestnut Hill’s historic commercial corridor. And the health of this corridor is important to the whole community. But creating a real sense of community requires much more, and the CHCA now has an opportunity to aim high.

Instead of just creating another portal, why not bolster one of our existing websites – the CHCA’s or the Local’s – to engage our community in a new way: direct constituent participation in our community government.

We could be a national leader in setting up a virtual town hall, an additional chamber of government, if you will, through which residents and other constituents could participate directly in the definition of priorities and the allocation of resources.

We could have online elections, polls and referenda, among many other possibilities. “I would contribute to the formation of a community-owned movie theater: Yes/No. How Much?”

This is uncharted territory, but it will be charted. The premise of traditional representative government was in large part that it was not feasible for everyone to be there. This is no longer the case. People are increasingly skilled in participating in online communities, and expectations that opportunities for this kind of participation should match the possibilities are already extending beyond commerce and media.

Let’s be a leader. Given its deep roots in local government, Chestnut Hill is ideally positioned to take up such an important challenge. If we do this, we will not only be putting our money where our mouth is in terms of promoting local civic engagement, we will be promoting the stature of Chestnut Hill in a way that could not help but benefit all its constituents, as well serving as an important example for other communities, large and small.

As far as a conventional portal is concerned, why not give the ones that are in place a chance? They’re done and they’re free and they’re asking for our participation.

Eric Spaeth is a Chestnut Hill resident.

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