Communication the key

Communications issues inside the town of Bethany Beach — both within town hall and with its citizens — are under the purview of its Communications Committee.
So, it was no coincidence that the committee at its February 22 meeting felt compelled to address complaints from some property owners about how the town had communicated about its draft Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP).

The complaints aired at the public hearing on Friday, Feb. 18, had centered on public awareness of the availability and details of the CDP prior to a scheduled public hearing and council vote on the plan that night.

Part-time resident Lois Lipsett had argued at the hearing that non-residents were at a disadvantage in getting a copy of the plan, or in some cases, even being aware it was available. The same was true of those without computers, she said.

Hearings related to the plan had been publicly announced in advance as they occurred over a nearly two-year period, with the final draft posted in digital form on the town’s Web site in recent weeks and available in hard-copy at the town office.

Newspaper coverage in the last two weeks had detailed some elements of the plan’s contents, as well as issuing reminders about its availability and the coming council action.

Still, some property owners apparently weren’t as well informed as they wanted to be, and it was up to the committee to make efforts to address any systemic problems that might have caused that situation.

Mayor and committee Chairman Jack Walsh brought forward the concept of increasing the town’s number of mailings on important issues, such as the CDP. The estimated cost of such a mailing, to all property owners, would be $1,000 each with labor and postcard printing.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet argued that the town “already does more than most municipalities to notify” its citizens of important issues and events. Postings for public hearings and other meetings are required at five locations around the town and are also provided on the town’s Web site, as well as in any required newspaper advertising and incidental media coverage.

Graviet made the case that, “in a democracy, it is the citizens’ responsibility to keep aware. … The idea that government can reach out and touch you anytime there is an important meeting is nice, but where do you draw the line?” he asked the committee members.

If the town were to increase its mailings beyond referendum-level issues, the town would be left with the difficult decision of what issues and events were important enough to warrant a mailing versus normal notification methods, he said. And even when mailings do take place, he added, “some still don’t know.”

Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead, a member of the committee, said she believed there were some in the town who just aren’t interested in the town’s governmental affairs. Meanwhile committee member Tony McClenny noted that he believed some 70 percent of the town’s citizens could potentially be reached via e-mail, yet most are not signed up for the town’s e-mail transmissions and some who have been receiving the e-mails have requested they be removed from the list due to receiving too much information that didn’t interest them.

Walsh supported the idea of mailings, saying he believed they do help in public awareness, but Olmstead questioned the need for an official policy, preferring instead that the town’s unwritten policy be to make decisions about mailings on a case-by-case basis. McClenny said he felt the CDP hearing might have been a good case in which to have done a mailing.

Graviet, though, said he felt the “time for input was not at a final review of the plan. It is at the beginning of the process.” The writing process for the CDP encompassed some 16 months, in fact, during which property owners were given multiple opportunities for input — including a much-publicized survey that received a more than 70 percent response rate.

For the committee’s edification, Graviet also noted that the town’s emergency phone system is underutilized and could possibly be used to make such public announcements if town officials authorized the use.

The automated system is capable of making 230 calls per hour, with a 30-second message. The town does have to pay toll charges on any non-local calls, he said, as well as obtain agreement from the call recipients that they can be called under non-emergency circumstances. (The system is also used daily to make safety-check calls to single elderly or infirm residents who subscribe to the service.)

With their options arrayed before them, committee members agreed that the decision to enhance normal public communication on such issues should be left in the hands of the town manager, mayor and council.

Another effort to increase communication between town officials and residents was explored at the February 22 meeting. Walsh proposed the town consider an informal or social event during which citizens could meet and talk informally with council members.

Discussion focused on the exact nature of the event, whether it would be centered on socializing or exchange of opinions and information. In the end, committee members agreed that there might be a call for two types of events: a “council social” where the focus would be on personal interaction, and a “residents’ forum” that would be an open meeting with no agenda and free exchange of ideas.

Graviet said he would discuss the idea with Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork to get the legal parameters under which such events would have to operate.

The establishment of a formal agenda would be forbidden, as likely would discussion of even informal proposals more appropriately handled by the town’s Planning Commission or other entities. Either type of event would therefore not entirely resemble the “workshops-without-agenda” held in Fenwick Island each month but would still allow open discussion of issues in the town.

The first such event — likely the “council social” could be held as soon as May, committee members agreed.

Another new method of communication with town residents and visitors is proceeding, thanks to a stamp of approval from the town council at its Feb. 18 meeting. The planned informational brochure and magnet are in the final stages of development, with fine-tuning of layout and information. The committee is looking to have both projects printed and in hand prior to the start of the summer season.

The more concise information on the magnet and the increased requirement for lead time on its printing should put it on the presses sooner than the brochure. (It is expected to primarily contain important local phone numbers.)

Inclusion of some town regulations on the brochure could mean a delay of some weeks while upcoming ordinance discussions take place. Olmstead also wanted to ensure that planned cultural events offered by the town would be included in some form, despite no specific dates having been set. The town’s Web site could instead be referenced for the most up-to-date information.

Despite any delay, the comparatively short lead time on its printing should still bring the brochure in for the summer.

Graviet said he had received a “limited response” to inquiries about interest in the local real estate community, with a handful of agencies requesting a total of perhaps 7,000 brochures and most requesting at-cost, below-cost or free provision of the brochures to give their rental clients. That information was to be used in determining how many brochures will be printed in the first run.

Walsh noted for committee members that the town’s Web site provider had recorded more than 13,000 visitors in the preceding month, well more than was expected during the winter. Plans for the site include forms to apply for business licenses and pay property rental taxes, as well as parking tickets.

Other town documents are being added, including applications for employment in the town’s police department and to its junior lifeguard program. The police department also made use of the site in recent weeks to provide additional information on its Citizens Corps program, after receiving significant response to newspaper coverage of the program.

The site’s business map is due to be updated prior to the start of the summer season, to more accurately reflect the town’s businesses. McClenny said he is continuing to investigate the supplying of live weather information on the town’s Web site, possibly through the weather station at Lord Baltimore Elementary School. He was awaiting response from the company that runs the school’s station.

Council members will have one additional opportunity to request their images not appear on the Web site. Walsh requested Olmstead verify with each council member that they were willing to have a photograph, their name and any council position title listed on the site.

The committee members agreed that listing committee positions for each council person might cause a problem with apparent workloads and opted not to include that information.

Additional organizational work is also a goal for the Web site, with committee members seeking to create a detailed site map for all content on the site, as well as making the existing navigation panel as simple and easy-to-use as possible.

Walsh noted that Town Clerk Lisa Kail is beginning work on the town’s newsletter, seeking input from town departments and related entities to include in the planned spring edition.

Among the items initially scheduled for mailing in conjunction with the newsletter was an update of the town’s “skills inventory.” The inventory was originally designed to discover what experience, talents and abilities citizens might have to offer the town, but Olmstead argued that it should instead be focused as a project to garner volunteer for town projects.

Some who had previously considered their talents offered to the town, McClenny said, had wondered why they had never been contacted. Graviet said he believed the effort should begin by starting an official volunteer program and finding someone to administer it, possibly in a part-time position with the town.

Once such an administrator and perhaps a related committee were formed, he said, decisions could be made on what kind of projects were suitable for volunteers, from administrative work at town hall to assistance with decorating for events. The emphasis should not be on finding work for volunteers to do, Graviet said, but on finding things they could do without making work just for the sake of making work.

The next meeting of the Communications Committee is set for Tuesday, March 15, at 10 a.m.