The City of Westminster Mayor and Common Council on Monday night, Nov. 12, debated how to improve the city’s communication with the public — especially in respect to public safety.
Speaking for the Public Safety Committee, Councilman Tony Chiavacci asked for his colleagues’ input about taking steps to improve the city’s communication with its residents.
Results of a month-long survey — intended to gauge how safe residents felt — made public at an August council meeting prompted the volunteer committee and elected council to question whether Westminster was doing an acceptable job informing its residents.
The committee was conceived to improve the transfer of information from the city and police department to the community, Chiavacci said. “That survey only proved to accentuate the fact that, that’s a need that we have.”
But council has provided no avenue for the committee — composed of volunteers, Westminster Police Chief Jeff Spaulding, City Administrator Barbara Matthews and Chiavacci, who serves as liaison to the city’s elected body — to disseminate information to the public. And the police department does not have a full-time public information officer.
Chiavacci told the Times after the meeting that he would like to see the city hire a public information officer for the police department, but that he’d prefer for the city to cut a job elsewhere so as not to add more money to the budget.
Westminster Police do distribute news releases following significant events, but it’s not a consistent form of communication, the councilman told fellow lawmakers.
Pending council’s blessing, the public safety committee could look into temporarily bringing on a contractor to pass along information via social media and other mediums, he said. “To build something that the general public starts viewing as a tool to be able to access accurate, correct, real information versus what you hear on different Facebook pages.”
At first, Chiavacci said, the added communication resources would pertain predominantly to law enforcement information and would serve as a tool for Spaulding’s department.
“But we also may find that’s a tool that ultimately down the road could expand to more and broader things for the city,” he said. “We don’t have a communications director or communications person or something like that.”
Councilwoman Mona Becker supported Chiavacci’s proposal, suggesting that it might be possible for a contractor to set up a communications system and provide training so that city staff could handle the job.
Chiavacci said the public safety committee saw it as a third party resource helping, not having city staff take on an additional responsibility.
Mayor Joe Dominick rebutted the idea of an outside contractor handling city communications.
“My gut says that someone who is in law enforcement should be the one communicating it,” Dominick said. “For accuracy, knowing what to communicate when.”
The mayor questioned who would control the flow of information. A committee? The council? A law enforcement officer?
An outside company attempting to speak for the city government is a daunting task, Dominick said. There’s much institutional knowledge that the company or individual would have to understand to speak accurately — the wrong message could get out, he added.
“My biggest concern is while we might be trying to save on, instead of hiring a full-time communications person, hiring a contractor part time, we may be creating an administrative headache and a time suck for other people,” the mayor said. “There might be a cost that we’re not viewing.”
Chiavacci told the Times after the meeting that the public safety committee had already discussed some of the mayor’s concerns.
The police department can easily generate reports and other information, he said, “because there are a lot of federal and state requirements in terms of reporting crime and things like that that already occur … it’s probably just a matter of formatting some reports and giving them” to the hired communicator.
Dominick said that he remembered all of his colleagues at the council table supporting the idea of a full-time staffer, be it not for fiscal constraints.
In an era where rumors spread like wildfires on social media, “the Westminster Online Community and the wild fantasies you see on there,” accurate communication must be a priority for Westminster, said Councilman Gregory Pecoraro. “We owe it to the citizenry to make sure that they have good, useful, reliable information.”
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In conclusion, the councilman said, the council must solicit the city finance department’s help in determining how much money could be available to take action toward bettering communications — through a contractor or full-time staffer.