Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker found a one-word message last week among the electronic mail he gets daily through the county government's home page on the World Wide Web -- the graphics-oriented arm of the Internet.
The message from county computer chief Richard Biggs was informational and celebratory. Howard County, which has had a home page on the Web for six months, now is listed on Yahoo -- the Web's largest search index and thought to be its most visited site.
Like Howard's, governments across America and Maryland are rushing to establish similar electronic channels. A national computer group says the number of government agencies and businesses putting home pages on the Web across the country is growing by more than 1,500 a week.
"Every jurisdiction is struggling with how to use it," says Michael Langrehr, state information technology chief.
In Maryland, Howard and Carroll counties and Annapolis already are on the Web with home pages, a single screen that leads viewers to areas of interest. In the near future, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Montgomery and Prince George's counties and the city of Baltimore are expected to follow.
Maryland state government is there, too, providing home pages for Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
One of the best-looking state government home pages -- from the Department of Natural Resources -- uses small color photographs of a sailboat, tent, fisherman, backpacker, horse, swimmer and skiers to direct searchers to information about recreational activities.
The format of the Web makes the once formidable Internet accessible even to novices. An estimated 8.6 million Americans now use it, a figure expected to quadruple in the next four years.
"You want to be flashy and glitzy on your home page, but it also has to be useful," Mr. Langrehr said. "You need to become quickly interactive."
By nightfall of Howard's first day on Yahoo, Mr. Ecker had gone interactive.
He received and replied to three messages from Web users, two living in Howard County -- where one in four residents has a personal computer with a modem that enables them to access the Internet through a telephone line.
Both the messages from Howard residents were complaints, one about a road needing resurfacing and the other about a plan to remove trash cans from county parks.
Howard County is not only on the Web -- at a cost of less than $1,000 to get set up. It plans by Thanksgiving to have its home page on a touch screen computer at a kiosk in The Mall in Columbia. The kiosk will give shoppers access to the public library as well.
The idea for the kiosk came before the county's Internet presence. County officials wanted to make it possible for people who bought pets, for example, to use the kiosk to electronically obtain a pet license the same day. The technology for setting that up on a touch screen computer was so similar to designing a home page on the Web that county officials decided to do both.
New elements still are being added to Howard's home page, but it's fairly useful already. For example, click on:
* A small photograph of Mr. Ecker, and viewers get a message from him asking, "How can I be of help to you?"
* A "Discover County Government" icon, and up pops a manual containing the equivalent of more than 100 pages of information about Howard's government.
* A "search topic" icon, and "search engine" appears -- allowing users to enter a word and find information about it.
* A "what's new" icon, and viewers can get the county to send them calendars of events, news releases and other announcements directly to their e-mail addresses.
Within the next three months, Howard expects to make every department accessible by electronic mail from its home page. The County Council soon will provide agendas, schedules, bills, e-mail and analyses of bills by the council's legislative assistants.
For now, Mr. Ecker is not overwhelmed by receiving two or three e-Mail messages a day from residents. But Mr. Biggs thinks the volume is going to be far greater than the county executive can handle from the computer on his desk.
Mr. Ecker is not deterred by that possibility.
Maryland: http://www.gov.- state.md.us.
State Department of Natural Resources: http://www.gacc.- com:82.
Annapolis: http://www.infi.- net/city.
Carroll County: http://www.- carr.lib.md.us.
Howard County: http://www.- softaid.net/nbenz.