The Hallowell City Council meets Saturday via the Zoom videoconferencing platform to discuss goals for 2021. Screenshot via Zoom

HALLOWELL — City leaders met Saturday to discuss the upcoming year, including upgrading the city’s website and forging regional partnerships.

The City Council met for its annual retreat via the Zoom videoconferencing platform.

The retreat was the first appearance for new Councilors Berkeley Almand-Hunter and Peter Spiegel since they were inaugurated Jan. 4.

Almand-Hunter, who was asked by Mayor George Lapointe to head up a new communications committee, supported a full rebuild of the city’s website.

“I can tell you from working in big tech companies, all software has to be aggressively maintained or you should start over every five to 10 years,” she said. “It needs to serve as a place for people to come if they need to so something in the city.”

Councilors described the website as “clunky.” In the future, they said, it should serve as a better marketing tool for the city, a role that has been pushed onto the city’s board of trade website — hallowell.org.

City Manager Nate Rudy said the website is run through GovOffice, and day-to-day maintenance is done by City Clerk Diane Polky. Rudy said the city’s website falls short in its role as a “repository of documents,” and is seeing more use during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more people going online to pay taxes and utilize services.

“The search feature is virtually useless,” Rudy said. “If you put in a search term, you get a bunch of gibberish in the search results.”

When asked if the city could migrate from its GovOffice platform to another, Rudy said there is no legal obligation to stay with GovOffice, but migrating all of the documents would be difficult and the city could “lose some connectivity between the documents and the pages.”

Polky said her biggest problem with the website is the number of announcements placed above the city’s event calendar on the homepage.

Councilors also mentioned forming regional partnerships for some services, such as economic development. Councilor Kate Dufour said city residents should not have to fund every service to have access to resources.

“I think this is the future of local government,” Dufour said. “We really need to start consolidating resources.”

The city recently teamed up with other communities to undergo diversity training, and has partnered with neighboring communities to build and maintain the Kennebec River Rail Trail.

Almand-Hunter suggested sending out surveys that could reveal what services Hallowell residents want and if they supported regionalization.

Councilor Patrick Wynne cautioned about entering partnerships where Hallowell representatives could be “steamrolled,” citing Hallowell’s role in the Greater Augusta Utilities District. He suggested teaming with more southern or coastal communities, which he said were more like Hallowell, given the city’s water frontage and downtown.

“When I looked at how (the Greater Augusta Utilities District) is set up, Hallowell has no say, so I would be very cautious with partnering with Augusta,” he said. “I think that rather than being an afterthought in the county, we might want to be a satellite of greater Portland or (the) midcoast.”

The issue of housing also cropped up during discussion, but Councilor Maureen Aucoin said the city’s comprehensive planning group and Community Heart & Soul group are looking at some broader issues and the council could rely on them for those studies.

Councilors also generally supported a notion brought forward by Aucoin, who said it was Dufour’s idea originally, that the council could hold longer, workshop-style meetings for larger city issues.

“A four-hour conversation,” Dufour said, “where we sit down and we know what the idea is. I think those conversations in this setting are good.”

Rudy said the city’s budget process is scheduled to begin on time, with the first draft being presented to the council in February. Before then, he said, the city’s department heads will thumb through the current fiscal year budgets and make changes. Those changes will be discussed internally before a draft is handed to the council next month.

Aucoin, chairwoman of the city’s finance committee, said the process might move a bit faster than in previous years.

The City Council is scheduled to meet again over Zoom at 6 p.m. Monday.

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