FLEMINGTON, NJ - Have you been frustrated while trying to get information on the Flemington Borough website? Help is on the way.

The governing body of Flemington voted on a new company to host its website during a special online council meeting scheduled to quickly put the borough in the queue with Spatial Data Logic (SDL) to expediate the conversion.

According to Mayor Betsy Driver, there are two municipalities with signed contracts in line and three others in the process of approving and signing a contract.

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“We don’t want to go six to eight months out,” she said. “We want to get ahead of the others in terms of their priority.”

Councilman Michael Harris was skeptical about both the timing and the process. He questioned the need for a “special” meeting after what admittedly has been more than a year-long search.

And while he agreed that upgrading the website was important, he questioned why a Request for Proposal (RFP) did not go out for this contract.

“Usually we get two vendors’ proposals and can compare what they’re offering,” Harris said.

Council president Caitlin Giles-McCormick quickly pointed out that they were not required to go out for bid for this contract.

This purchase has been actively in the works since last year. At that time, however, the quote from SDL was approximately $5,000 more than this year's quote for the transition to a new site and a year of ongoing support.

“This was above our budget limitations,” said Giles-McCormick. “Since then, they have restructured their pricing, to offer a lower price to smaller municipalities, which has resulted in the quote we received this year.”

The borough is asking for $12,000 from the Hunterdon County Economic Development office in the form of a grant, with the commitment from the borough to provide an additional $1,200 toward the project.

Harris clarified that the borough would only have to pay 10 percent of the total cost, and asked whether the money had already been budgeted. The mayor confirmed that there is already a budget line item for the website, which is being used to pay the monthly fee to the current provider, and that the council just needed to authorize the expenditure.  

AlphaDog Solutions will continue to host the current site until the new site is ready.

“The $1,200 match amount for the grant is available in the budget under the website line item,” said Giles-McCormick, “even with continuing to pay AlphaDog during the transition.”

Most of the search for a new company was done by Driver and Giles-McCormick, with input at various stages from council member Jess Hand, Corp. Brian McNally and borough staff members Sallie Graziano and Rebecca Newman. They interviewed companies and even spoke with some area mayors about which companies not to choose.  

CivicPlus and a few other highly recommended sole-proprietors were considered before a final decision was made.

“For me, the biggest deciding factor to move away from our current provider is ultimately the design and accessibility of information on the site,” Giles-McCormick said. “There have been several features that I have inquired about changing over the past year that they cannot change, including some of the calendar features, layouts of internal pages and how connected posts feed one another and appear on the homepage. I find the method of displaying certain information to be clunky and difficult for stakeholders to navigate. The need for us to push additional individuals and services to the website in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has only further proven the point that we need to make these improvements.”

There were many reasons cited for the choice of SDL, also known as GovSites, including that by using that company some of the better customer service features will be accessible prior to the complete website design going live, including an improved COVID page and online licensing applications. Specifically mentioned were pothole repair requests, purchasing dog licenses and obtaining building permits.

“We want to make it easier to do business with the borough,” said the mayor.

Overall, the decision-makers agreed that the broad template design of the SDL website is much cleaner and user-friendly, while still allowing for needed customization.

Giles-McCormick added that SDL is incredibly experienced and familiar with the needs of government sites to be ADA compliant and allow for automatic translation into other languages, a key concern for the council and community.

“SDL is able to provide significant assistance with the transfer and maintenance of website data,” said Giles-McCormick, “while also allowing borough staff the ability to update directly when there is the need for a time-sensitive change.”

Concerned about keeping the business closer to home, Harris also asked where SDL was located and verified that there weren’t any companies in either Flemington or Hunterdon County that could do the work.

The mayor said, “there are not a lot of folks out there doing these types of government websites and even fewer of them doing it well.”

The upgrading of the municipal website has been one of her goals, the mayor said.  

“When I first took office, a resident told me he had to take a whole day off of work just to get a parking permit for his daughter,” she said. “That’s unacceptable.”

Other council members have also been frustrated with the site, both as resident users and government officials.

Prior to her election and as far back as 2016, Giles-McCormick said she had publicly expressed her frustration as a user of the borough website.

Council Vice President Kim Tilly confirmed that the need for a change has been ongoing.

“This was an item that the council talked about internally as early as 2017, and I suspect maybe even earlier,” she said.

In February 2019, members of the council were asked for feedback on what changes they would like to see on the site, and a few suggestions were made. The result was an upgraded template on the site through AlphaDog in August 2019, but the borough site still had significant limitations to functionality, which is what has led to changing vendors.

Giles-McCormick explained that while AlphaDog has been clear about what they can provide and how long it will take for certain types of updates, the borough is at a point where it needs a different kind of website product and SDL is able to provide it.

McNally, the OEM coordinator, said that a big part of the borough’s reopening plan as it moves from Stage 1 to Stage 2 will be getting the information up on the website so residents have immediate access to the changes taking place.

AlphaDog Solutions will continue to host the current site until the new site is ready.  

Giles-McCormick said SDL will be able to move quickly because the modules for the municipal website have already been created by the Union, New Jersey, based company, they will just need to drop them into place.

In the end, Harris abstained from the vote for the website, which passed with five yes votes. He did vote yes in favor of pursing the county grant.