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Solution sought for communication breakdown

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Posted: Monday, October 18, 2004 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:49 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Oct. 6, 2004 - The town of Oro Valley is looking at several different ways to expand how it communicates with residents in order to better inform the public of the decisions it is making.

Several new formats for getting information to residents are now being discussed by the council and town staff while several others are in the implementation process.

In August, Councilmember Helen Dankwerth approached the town's Public Information Officer Bob Kovitz with a request to explore the possibility of a periodic newsletter that would keep residents abreast of council proceedings, calling it "a report to citizens."

Dankwerth, and several other councilmembers, have been vocal from the time they started campaigning for office of their desire to better communicate with residents in Oro Valley.

At a Sept. 27 special session, Kovitz reported his findings to the council.

He told the council the staff examined including a quarterly report of the council's action in the water bills of Oro Valley Water subscribers. The cost of paper and printing for such a document was estimated at $750. In addition, the staff investigated the cost of sending bulk mail updates to residents who do not get Oro Valley Water, with the total cost estimated at about $1,000 per mailing. Such an item was not included in this year's budget, so Kovitz told the council one would have to be designated. Finance Director David Andrews identified the general administration account as a possibility.

Councilmember Conny Culver said $4,000 a year was a lot to spend, and that using e-mail and Web site updates as well as leaving pamphlets at the library and Town Hall could be more cost effective.

There was an eight-page newsletter included in the original budget proposed for this year. It was to be mailed out to Oro Valley residents twice a year and the estimated cost was $40,000 annually. The council removed the item from the budget. In fact, the council put a hold on several budget proposals in the information and communications areas in order to study the items further.

During the budget process, a Webmaster programmer position, which would cost $34,247 for a salary and $7,900 for operating and maintenance, also was removed from the budget.

At the time, Mayor Paul Loomis referred to the importance of having an Information Management Plan for the future. He stated that, although the Webmaster programmer is an important position, he is not convinced that it is needed now.

Councilmember Barry Gillaspie agreed, saying a more comprehensive program is needed by the town.

Reclassifying the PIO position to a Community Relations Director position, with a salary increase of $15,000 also was denied. The majority of councilmembers agreed that the town's approach to information management and dissemination needed to be changed. Culver said denying the reclassification was about "what we can afford and how we plan to move forward to solve the communication complaints we get from the public," according to official minutes from the meeting.

How to decide what would be included in the mailing, a one-third page front and back insert, was discussed among council members, who agreed that what is important to one member may not seem significant to another. Dankwerth suggested having one councilmember, chosen on a rotating basis, edit each edition.

Vice Mayor Paula Abbott expressed the wish to include who voted for and against each resolution in any kind of newsletter that would be distributed to the public. She said she felt that kind of information would be the most useful to the greatest number of people.

Town Clerk Kathi Cuvelier pointed out that the town currently does post minutes of all meetings on the town's Web site, at www.townoforovalley.com, but that it does sometimes fall behind. She said the minutes are not posted until they are approved by the council at a future meeting. Kovitz added in a subsequent interview that at least two local newspapers do regularly publish stories about council meetings.

Support of such an endeavor by all councilmembers would be important prior to beginning any kind of report to "reflect unanimity of purpose, regardless of votes on individual issues," Kovitz said.

Loomis moved to continue discussion of a possible newsletter to a study session in November.

"There are a lot of ideas out there. We heard a bunch of them and we may hear a bunch more. I think we need to do a little more work to see what is the message we want to send," he said.

The existing Oro Valley Web site posts information about how to reach various town staff and council members, copies of some town documents, such as the General Plan and performing arts feasibility study, and schedules of community events, for example.

The site is updated "as needed" with each department taking responsibility for maintaining certain portions, according to Kovitz. For example, the Public Works Department updates its pages concerning current and anticipated projects and Parks and Recreation posts its activity guide. The Webmaster for the site currently operates from Maricopa County, however, the town is looking at bringing the job in-house in the "near future" according to Kovitz.

Kovitz and the Information Technology Administrator Kevin Verville meet and talk "frequently" about adding or removing information.

The town is "always looking at new ways to use the Internet," Kovitz said, but has to keep in mind that not everyone has access to a computer and that some people prefer to hold the information in their hands or hear it for themselves.

At the Sept. 27 meeting, Gillaspie suggested developing a town "blog" that citizens could use to communicate information about the town.

"I can't see a community more ready for that than Oro Valley," he said.

A blog, short for Web log, is essentially a public journal, most often arranged with the most recent entry on the top of the page.

Kovitz said a moderated newsgroup is a possibility for the town, but that there is a liability issue when people are allowed to post things that "could be slanderous." How to edit something of that nature could present problems, although it has not been ruled out.

During the past few council meetings, the town has been experimenting with a live audio stream of the meeting over the Internet.

Kovitz said the process is in the testing phase and is being listened to by town staff to work out any glitches. The town has the advantage of high-speed Internet, which not all home users have.

He said there have been some technical problems with malfunctioning microphones and not being able to hear each speaker clearly and that the staff is "fooling around with it and doing some fine tuning."

The town hopes to be up on the Internet for the public to log onto within the next few weeks. Once it is made available to the public, people will be able to log on from anywhere where they have access to the Internet and hear the meeting as it happens.

Eventually, the town plans to archive the meetings so that individuals can go back if they have missed something or if they have questions about specific actions or what was said about a particular issue and hear it for themselves.

Earlier this year, the council directed Town Manager Chuck Sweet to ask Comcast Cable Communications Inc. to add public, education and government channels for Oro Valley and other area customers.

The option was available to the town when it negotiated the current agreement seven years ago, Kovitz said, but the council at the time passed on the option.

Several channels that previously were available only to Tucson subscribers, such as those operated by the University of Arizona and Pima Community College, now are available to Oro Valley residents.

Kovitz said the town is in the beginnings of negotiating a new franchise agreement with Comcast in the coming fiscal year and that as part of the agreement, the town would like to have a public access channel added in Oro Valley so that the town could broadcast its council meetings live to all Comcast cable subscribers.

The new contract would take effect in 2007.

Kovitz said the opportunity was presented by Channel 12 to broadcast the meetings, but it was not "cost effective."

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