The most common thing you encouraged me to do as I started in office was to improve communication at the City. I agreed this was a great idea! This is a big concept with lots of ways to solve it, so brace yourself, this will be my longest article in this series Serving You.
Ok, so what does ‘better communication’ mean? More information? More ‘yeses’? More results? Sure we all want yes and we all want results, but sometimes yes for me means no for you. And sometimes things are moving along and we just don’t know it. So how can we feel more connected?
I think it means relationships. We can only trust our City government if we have a relationship that is built on knowledge and respect. So to me, that means more opportunities for dialogue and building relationships. I spent most of my last three years trying to figure out how we could improve dialogue and thus relationships, and here’s what I came up with so far:
Positive and informative dialogue at the front counter, when applying for development permits = strong development department
Diverse representation in committees (where we move projects forward) to build dialogue across interest groups = strong committees
Easy ways for people to get educated = strong toolbox of education options that are constantly kept up to date (website, list serve, social media, etc.)
Clear ways for our community to ask questions and have dialogue = cohesive message about how to communicate with City staff and elected officials
All four of these ideas were not only time consuming to come to, but are time consuming to develop. I approached the whole council with my ideas about communication immediately after starting on council. The council, like our community, is a diverse group. I realized right away that these were going to take some time to work through together. I have no authority as an individual council member, we make decisions through debate and discussion together.
First: I began doing what I could individually
developed a website as a source of information on how the council gets our work done, with lists of committees and some information about their work.
created a blog so I can dive into issues and explain the deeper level of some of our work.
maintain a Facebook page so I can share updates from my blog and the city website, or other fun community things, as well as easily get messages and notes from the community.
held weekly ‘office hours’ to sit and chat with anyone who would like to connect.
Second: I worked together with the council and staff
Strong Development Department
When hiring for our Development Department positions in 2018 our main goal, outside of professional experience, was to hire staff who believe that positive and informative communication are essential to the department. They ensure 1.) development follows our code (which is defined by our community and ratified by council) and 2.) that if our code isn’t serving our needs, it is brought to the council for review. Both new staff members are amazing and already are doing so much good work for our City.
CHECK! - we are on the right track here, with continued work to keep this strong.
I initiated the creation of a communication graphic to help visualize how citizens can interact with the City to try to create some clarity for the public. The graphic is rather simplistic, so its usefulness is also elementary. However, the process of creating and then referring to the graphic helped further our discussions at the City on communication solutions.
The strength of our current council lies in our diversity. Each one of the seven of us communicate with the public in different ways, which means we collectively offer lots of opportunities for our citizens to connect! The main drawback is without some cohesion, it can be confusing to know how best to connect with each. However, the overall ability for us to represent all of the community’s viewpoints is strong.
CHECK (almost) - we’ve worked on it, we have more work to do.
Strong Tool Box
WEBSITE - The council would like to update our website design to be a little more current, which hopefully means easier to navigate. There is so much information there now, if you know what you’re looking for. But we would like to make it easier to find information if you don’t know what you’re looking for. This redesign is a time consuming and expensive endeavor and we have not agreed upon it as a financial priority yet.
LIST SERVE/SOCIAL MEDIA - The staff already have been doing a lot of work communicating through our list serve and social media. The list serve and the Facebook page seem to be great tools!
PUBLIC NOTICES - The staff have also already have been doing a lot of work communicating through our required notices for public meetings and development processes:
The problem with required notices: we are legally required to notice the community about public meetings and development processes. THIS IS HOW we are supposed to communicate. It is a legal requirement so that we can ensure we are giving adequate notice to the public. The problem is, people don’t like it. It doesn’t feel like notification.
Here’s what it is: it is legally accurate, it is fair, it is dry
Here’s what it is not: it does not build relationships. If you don’t happen to read the news that week or the city webpage, you miss it. However, if we give more notices than the law requires, we have to do it for every project so we ensure we treat every project equally. This is one area where I don’t have ideas for improvement.
EMAIL/PHONE/OFFICE HOURS - staff, mayor and council all have their own ways of informing and talking with the public. These are varied and many!
COMMUNITY MEETINGS - council meetings are a fine place to watch the public process and learn information. They are not great for feeling connected or involved. Same is true for informational public meetings (see below for more).
EDUCATION - The last piece of the tool box is a conundrum - how can education NOT feel like being told no? When you want to get something done and it is explained why you cannot, that is frustrating. The message does not always get through.
CHECK (almost) - we’ve worked on it, we have more work to do.
Third: I continued pursuing what we can do as a whole city
I have been chewing on this concept for three years now. How do we strengthen our working relationships? It took LOTS of conversations with LOTS of different people and groups for me to see the big hole - diverse groups do not have opportunities to work together. We have divisions and misunderstandings, similar to that in organizational silos. So we need to find a way to break these silos and work together.
It is in committees where we are able to meet in small groups to discuss and debate issues. We find our way forward together. Individual and collective relationships are built and understanding is deepened. This is why I have targeted diverse committee membership as a possible solution to our communication problem. I have two ideas to improve on our current committees:
Develop a residential committee that includes representation from various existing community groups. This is something other council members have worked toward as well, but we have struggled to come to collective decision on the next step here.
Develop a cross-committee program that brings various groups together that are not usually engaged together in work. When people have ways to productively engage, see how projects are moving along, and feel ownership in the process, we will have met our goal in building relationships. If I can bring anything to our town, I hope it is the ability for all of us to discover more connections.
NO CHECK - we have a lot more work to do.
Annual Council Retreat
Every year the Council has a retreat. Historically the retreat was developed for budget analysis and discussion. In recent years that past focused budget work of the council and staff has paid off in a strong budget and a AA Financial Rating.
With our finances secure, we have had time to discuss other big goals and projects during our retreats. My favorite agenda item has been ‘Your Big Idea.’ Each council member is given time to present an idea or two. It can be big or small - anything! A couple years ago one of my Big Ideas was parking, now that was BIG (that will be Serving You, part 3). One of my Big Ideas this year was a City Block Party.
My City Block Party idea was born out of our discussion at this year’s council retreat about hosting a community meeting. We brainstormed lots of ideas for more opportunities to engage with the public. There are pros and cons to every single one. Community Meetings are great when we have a project (like Pine Street) and we want to answer specific questions and make sure everyone understands the process. They also bring our whole, diverse community together. They are not great for hearing new ideas, addressing diverse concerns or hearing from people who don’t prefer speaking in front of large groups. Thus the Block Party idea was born. With council/mayor/staff running barbecues and our whole community mingling together, we can be available for conversations while having fun together! I hope we are able to put this concept together because it could be a fun and building way to ‘meet’ as a community.
All of my ideas, projects and accomplishments so far have been because of working with my fellow council, the city staff, the mayor and the community. All of us together put our little marks on projects that help push things along. And that is the only way we will continue forward - together.
Please let me know your thoughts and ideas! These projects will always be a work in progress so let’s work together!