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The Chattanooga City Council wants to know more about a new tech-based way of finding out what their voters really think.

Representatives of Votus, a civic technology company, recently met with the council to show them what that might look like.

"The problem we're really seeking to solve is to bridge the gap between constituents and their representatives," Votus CEO Brandon Harris said.

Harris said the product, now in beta testing, would cost $230 a month per council member user — nearly $25,000 a year. The company would consider a pilot period of up to six months for the council to adopt the program, with the intent of taking on an annual subscription.

For citizens who want to connect to their elected representatives, the Votus app verifies their addresses and confirms who their local representatives are, Harris said. Votus also lets them know whether they are registered to vote.

It allows users to submit issues to the platform, he said. The system collects and collates that information into usable data for the representatives. Votus also lets users see how their neighbors feel about a given issue.

"One of the most empowering things for people is to figure out their neighbors care about it, too," Harris said.

On the back end, a council member can monitor submitted issues, which can be grouped according to subject tags such as transportation, he said.

Harris said elected officials may decide to start a district-level discussion based on trending concerns, gathering feedback through comments and surveys. After that, the council member could post updates and push notifications to users on actions taken.

The technology allows an elected official to prioritize issues and not just deal with "squeaky wheels" and people who want to "throw a monkey wrench into things," Votus representative Richard Exton said.

"This would be a way if we have a contentious issue on the council to really get feedback from our constituency at-large and individually on how they feel about an issue," Councilman Chris Anderson said. "We wouldn't just hear from, say, the five loudest people in the district, but hopefully a broader swathe."

Councilwoman Carol Berz asked how Votus could prevent "basement trolls" from intimidating their neighbors and sabotaging discussions like she has seen them do with Nextdoor app conversations. She asked to see sample digital Votus user conversations.

"I would love to see what it looks like because people are very fractious right now," Berz said.

Although he had no Votus conversation examples to show the council, Exton said safeguards prevented users from creating fake accounts. The platform also lets users flag comments as irrelevant.

"We thought about trolling on the front end," Harris said. "The purpose of this is that the will of the community float to the top."

Council members said they wanted to learn more before they make any decision on adopting the program.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.

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