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A Commitment to Communication

An informed community is a stronger community

When you have a question or concern about a city matter, which Staunton city official do you contact?

When you need information from the city, whose job is it to ensure you receive a courteous and accurate response?

Who would you guess manages Staunton’s website, serves as the city’s official spokesperson, and oversees its public relations strategy? 

The answer to all three is Staunton’s Communications Manager. The importance of these responsibilities make it clear how essential this position is for an effective and responsive city government.

The city’s website identifies the Communications Manager as one of only three positions directly under the City Manager. And yet, since the previous Communications Manager left nearly a year ago, the city has left the position vacant, assigning its responsibilities to remaining staff in the City Manager’s office. While you can still find the Communication Manager’s detailed job description on the website, there is no listing for this unfilled position on the city government job portal. This highlights a significant disconnect between the importance of the position as described by the city and what seems to be a low priority in filling it.

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Recent city issues have made it clear just how critical this position is. The announcement of the Hardy Parking Lot as the city’s initial choice for relocating the J&DR Court facility, the consideration of Staunton’s first utility-scale solar development, and the review and approval of adjustments to the city real estate tax rate are only the latest and highest-profile examples. For the most part, relevant information for all these issues has been available on the city website. However, in many cases the information can be both challenging to locate on the website and difficult to comprehend, given the details and complexity of the subjects.

On the plus side, the Staunton home page now links to a landing page focused specifically on the J&DR Court facility. The page provides news updates and links to presentations from City Council meetings. Admittedly there is great information on the page, but unfortunately it was only developed in response to the public pushback after the city announced the elimination of the Hardy Parking Lot. 

Being proactive is vital to effective communication between city and citizen. Reactive communication after the damage has been done is a sign of a missed opportunity. For just one example, in the case of the court facility relocation, powerful citizen reaction was predictable ahead of time. Input from a skilled Communications Manager at the outset might well have tempered the response and lowered the temperature surrounding this and other issues, fostering more trust from citizens and more productive public meetings. Though a satisfactory outcome was eventually reached, no one could disagree that getting there was needlessly divisive. A skilled city Communications Manager would have recognized opportunities to simplify and summarize the issue and process for the public, while providing much-needed background information for context.

There are many other city department pages on the website where information could be digested to make it more useful to residents and businesses. For example, if you click  the oddly titled “Applications and Brochures” link on the Community Development page,  you will find yourself on a page titled “Permits and Licenses.” Here you will be presented with a list of approximately 50 document links bearing little or no description. A form presenting a series of questions that would be used to direct visitors to the necessary documents would be a much more user-friendly approach. For potential land developers, informational summaries or flow charts that describe the review process, anticipated timelines, and primary city points of contact for each step could be enormously helpful.

Recent land development applications also suggest a need to reconsider the city’s current public notification process. City code currently calls for notifications to be mailed to adjacent property owners for all land use decisions that require a public hearing. While the current process is generally sufficient for most land development applications, developments of a certain scale or type might benefit from additional public notification requirements. On the web site, the city’s court relocation landing page could be a model for similar “one-stop” information destinations about land development projects of a certain size. This might have been enormously helpful during the solar special use permitting process. Along with the mailed notices, many localities also call for signage along a property’s street frontages to let citizens know a public hearing on the application is scheduled.

I see the potential to expand the functionality and awareness of the city’s eNotification system. Many residents appear to be unaware that it even exists. Its usefulness and participation could be improved with a simpler, more streamlined sign-up process that allows users to select which types of notifications they wish to receive. Staunton’s public schools have a widely adopted notification system already in place. Why not use their very successful approach as a template for the city’s system?

I also believe it is important to revive Staunton’s innovative Citizen University program, dormant since the pandemic began in 2020. The in-person program was previously limited to 25 participants, admitted on a first-come, first-serve basis. However, with the city’s upgraded technological capacity, there is potential for a virtual program that would expand opportunities for residents to learn how the various aspects of local government work. A Local Government Career/Civics Day in our public schools might include informational presentations from various department officials that focus on the ways their departments impact Staunton students and families every day. 

It is a bedrock principle of my campaign for City Council that we must continue to encourage and create opportunities for the public to be a part of any city decision-making process. The increase in public access through technology and innovation that was spurred by the pandemic was a major positive step in this direction. But we can’t stop there—it is important to provide multiple ways for citizens to express their ideas and concerns, ensuring that everyone in Staunton has a voice.  An effective and skilled Communications Manager is an essential component of this commitment to improve city communications. As a member of City Council, I will advocate to reestablish this vital position for our city government.