[Cybertalk logo] Copyright (c) 1995 by Timothy C. Barmann. This article is intended for personal viewing only and may not be re-distributed in any form. Please e-mail link requests.

September 17, 1995

The gov is
now plugged in

By Timothy C. Barmann

Ever wondered what Governor Lincoln Almond's position is on welfare reform? Have a suggestion on how he can cut the state's budget? Or are you dying to know his favorite color?

Well, it just became a little easier to "speak" to the governor about these kinds of issues.

This summer, Almond's office joined the computer revolution by offering access to the governor by electronic mail. And as of last month, his office is now on line on two separate computer networks to provide computer users a way to learn more about his views.

One site has been set up by Rhode Island Horizons, the Providence Journal Co.'s electronic information service, which is available through the national on-line network, Prodigy.

The other is available through the Ocean State Free-Net, the state- sponsored public computer network.

Both sites offer virtually the same content, which is supplied by the governor's office.

Almond's "Issue of the Week" is a main feature of the on-line areas and is written in a sometimes casual style from a first-person perspective.

In one issue, he explained why he thinks the "deadbeat dads" legislation he signed recently will be effective. The new law, he wrote, deals personal and financial penalties "as a means of, shall we say 'persuading' deadbeat parents to pay up. ..."

The Horizons presentation, "From the Governor," prominently displays a colorful portrait of the smiling governor superimposed on images of the State House and the Rhode Island state seal. The site also allows users to write e- mail messages to Almond.

The governor's area on the Free-Net is less fancy but simple to navigate with a numbered menu of selections.

Free-Net users, as well as anyone with an electronic mailbox, can send e- mail to the governor just as they would to any other Internet address. (The governor's e-mail address and those of other Rhode Island public officials are listed elsewhere on the Online page.)

Who answers the mail?

E-mail sent to the governor actually lands in his constituent affairs office, which is headed by David Darlington.

Darlington said his staff, which handles and replies to all forms of incoming correspondence to the governor, fetches the governor's electronic mail each morning.

Most mail, he said, isn't answered personally by the governor, because he simply doesn't have time to read it all. Almond has received about 34,000 pieces of mail since being sworn in last January, Darlington said.

But if a message is one that "only he can answer, we then forward it to the governor on paper for him to review," he said.

Almond will give Darlington or his staff his reply. If the question arrived by e-mail, the reply will be sent back by e-mail.

Some politicians have actually shied away from responding to constituents by e-mail because of the ease in which someone can pass himself off as someone else on the Internet.

In fact, a Cybertalk column in May reported that a person working at a computer at American University in Washington, D. C., was able to pose as Governor Almond in an Internet discussion group.

"There's always concern about anything like that," said Jim Taricani, Almond's director of communications.

But Taricani noted that the possibility of fraud existed long before the governor went on line.

"It wouldn't take a whole lot of creativity or wherewithal to create a piece of stationery with the governor's letterhead," he said.

But it's very unlikely that you would get a fraudulent response when sending e-mail to Almond. For that to occur, someone would first have to intercept your message to the governor, a much more difficult endeavor.

Horizons has no plans right now to accomodate opposing viewpoints on the governor's site, said the service's editor, Andrea Panciera. But when election time rolls around and other gubernatorial candidates appear, she said, "it's obviously something I would have to think about."

The Free-Net vice-president, Howard Boksenbaum, said that all candidates were approached and offered space on that network during the last state-wide election. As for forthcoming elections, he said, "I suspect we'll do that again and continue to do it."

How to connect

To access the governor's site on Rhode Island Horizons, subscribers can jump: GOVERNOR. The monthly cost for Horizons plus the Prodigy service is about $15. Call (800) 320-0042 ext. 526 for free access software and more information.

There is no fee to connect to the Ocean State Free-Net, but the Free-Net accepts donations to help cover operating costs. For a detailed recording on how to connect, call 277-2728, ext. 500. Or you can speak to a real person weekdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at that number.

On the Ocean State Free-Net, the governor's site can be found from the main menu by choosing 8 (Government Center), then 2 (State Government), and finally 5 (Governor's Office).

Computer calendar

Tuesday - The Providence Chapter of the Boston Computer Society will have a presentation about Windows 95 by Advanced Systems of East Greenwich, which has been testing the software. The meeting is at 7 p.m. in the East Conference Room of the Community College of Rhode Island, Warwick campus. At 6:30 p.m., there will be a general discussion on computers along with a question and answer session. Cost: Free.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff photographer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.