High Desert Hoofbeats
The cost of control

Want to communicate better with city hall? You may be able to if the purported goals of a new, seven-page policy go into effect.

Wheels started turning on this lengthy document about a year ago when the city, flush with an expanding budget and expanding revenues, created a job for the sole purpose of overseeing how staff visits within its ranks and with the public. I suppose that’s progress. I hope it will help city business be more transparent.

The city appears to want to do a better job of communicating with the public. It’s also concerned about its image, judging from the proposal set to be approved just after press time when the council meets this week. The city unveiled the lengthy “communication plan and policies” last Friday, giving the public little time to digest the document before a scheduled vote Wednesday evening. But no matter; there is no public hearing on the matter anyway. It can be approved, denied or tweaked on the whims of the council. The plan was just one item on the hefty July 25 agenda, including but not limited to public hearings on wastewater service rates and revenue bonds, rules guiding public contributions, proposed revisions to business licensure, and closed sessions regarding “pending or reasonably imminent” legal matters and touchy personnel issues.

The Pioneer Day holiday on Tuesday threw a monkey wrench into the city’s customary schedule, delaying the regular meeting by a day and making it difficult for us in the weekly news business to report in a timely manner what is discussed and approved by the city. The county council operated in similar style last week, conducting its meeting Wednesday afternoon instead of the previous day.

We realize we are just one cog in the information cycle. Aside from our coverage, city council meetings are live-streamed, tweeted, Face-booked and gossiped about. And people can still attend and speak in person if they so desire. But how and when they speak has changed over the last little while. Under new standards, folks have got to be precise about what they say and at what time during meetings they can say it. But again, I suppose that’s progress. Public comments have got to be controlled to keep meetings running smoothly.

And that’s what I see as I read the city’s communication policy. Control. The policy “embraces the importance of citizens involvement,” and fosters “active participants in the overall decision-making process whenever possible,” according to the policy’s introduction. So listen up, readers, the city wants you to be involved! The plan wants to help “improve citizen confidence in government,” according to the document, and aims to highlight “key messages of government, as determined by Moab’s elected officials…” It is designed to help the public— voters and taxpayers—“understand their role in civic participation,” and to what level they may be active.

Further, the policy seeks to “protect the brand by ensuring that one voice represents the city, with a common tone and consistent message.” The city will conduct internal communication audits, and document what staff members are saying. There is a litany of rules about emails, which “must never include” personal quotes.

Actually, this all gives me pause to wonder what’s missing between the lines. Are decades’-old methods not working? Does information from the city have to be sifted through a sanitizer? Perhaps the city is simply so sensitive about the Rebecca Davidson era that it never wants to lose face again on the levels that it reached under her management.

If I were to research civic policies in metropolitan areas, such as Salt Lake City where our current city manager once worked, I’d probably find boilerplate policies like the one floated this week by our city. It’s probably common procedure among bigger governmental entities that can afford it. And that’s the key: city coffers are flush with money.

The new rules seek to engage residents and “build bridges,” hosting events such as town hall meetings, youth and citizen academies, creating newsletters, making frequent social media posts, all of which are necessary “due to reduced coverage from traditional media organizations,” says the policy. I guess the officials who have mandated this policy think we are lacking in our coverage of the city. But it makes me wonder what they don’t want us to know.

I hope the individual talent of the city’s staff in its many departments will still be apparent under this new style of communication. Even though the city is finding it “more and more difficult to tell [their] story,” according to the policy, we here at the newspaper will still try to help decipher it for you. It’s a challenge to which we are committed. Communication and watch-dogging the government are key to a healthy society.

To the people: Don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call one or more of your five city council members and the mayor when you have questions and input. They were elected by us to be sounding boards and decision-makers on our behalf. Hopefully they will be able to think and respond on their own.

As for city staffers, perhaps they will be happy to have one less thing to do—answer to the public—even if they are on the front lines of issues. I guess this is just the way of government communication as our society moves forward, in communities that can afford such control.

ByBy Sena Taylor Hauer