Michael Wood-Lewis pedals through Burlington’s backstreets, squeezes the brakes and locks his bike outside a local bakery. On this morning, he pulls up to a table inside this 19th century brick building.
He holds many of his business meetings in local shops like this one.
"I think it’s a better world when we know our neighbors," Wood-Lewis says, sipping orange juice and chewing a slice of freshly-baked bread. "I think that’s changed in the last couple generations."
Wood-Lewis aims to get back to that tradition with a very contemporary tool. He’s the founder of Front Porch Forum – a sort-of digital bulletin board that brings people together in a particular town or neighborhood.
The social media service that used to be free has begun to ask larger municipal governments to buy a subscription for custom access. Town officials need to decide whether the service is worth paying for to reach constituents.
Wood-Lewis talks about his business with a certain passion. And at 46, he still carries the boyhood idealism that he carried years earlier, delivering newspapers in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
"I had a paper route as a kid," Wood-Lewis recalls. "I knew everybody up and down the street. We all went to the same school. It was a different kind of world. Now it’s hard to know your neighbors. And Front Porch Forum helps people connect in that way."
Here’s how it works: only people who live in your neighborhood can read or post comments on Front Porch Forum. It’s free, and individuals use it to announce yard sales or declare a lost pet; to exchange political views or just share gossip.
And it’s the local governments in those cities and towns from which Front Porch Forum is requesting a subscription fee for the privilege to communicate across their community.
Wood-Lewis says the goal is to keep the service free for individuals.
"We work with local businesses," he says. "We sell advertising. And we also charge larger municipalities to access multiple front porch forums in their town."
Since Wood-Lewis and his wife founded Front Porch Forum six years ago it has spread quickly – to 80 towns and more than 40,000 households. So far, five cities and towns have agreed to pay for the service, including Vermont’s second largest town.
"Approximately one-third of the households in Essex are signed up for Front Porch Forum," says Linda Myers, chair of the Essex Select Board.
Last month, the Board decided to pay for the service at least for the rest of this year. Essex has nine forums, and Myers says the town makes limited use of the digital tool, posting select board agendas and meeting summaries.
But Myers says digital outreach hasn’t necessarily increased participation. "Quite frankly, I haven’t seen more people than usual show up for select board meetings," she says.
Back at the bakery in Burlington, Michael Wood-Lewis maintains that Front Porch Forum is one of the most effective ways town officials can communicate with their constituents. "People sign up for Front Porch Forum and they say, ‘Oh, I don’t pay attention to local news, but I do care what happens up and down my street.’"
You can find select board minutes from Essex and government documents from 100 other Vermont cities and towns at VPR’s Public Post. While you’re there, post a comment or send a message on Twitter using the hash-tag #PublicPost to open a discussion about an issue in your town.