By Tom Shevlin
NEWPORT – In a move aimed at improving its outbound communications, City Manager Jane Howington said on Saturday that the city will soon roll out its own Facebook and Twitter accounts. Speaking at a special Saturday morning strategy session with city councilors, Howington reported that the decision to wade into social networking will be part of a broader program to reach out to residents on topics ranging from street closures and trash pickup to emergency alerts.
"All things come back to communication," Howington said.
That was a sentiment clearly shared by councilors, who during their previous strategy session had challenged the administration to develop a comprehensive communication improvement plan. This, their sixth such meeting, was meant to provide an update on the plan and put into motion some of its more actionable points.
Other points of interest include placing the city's Web management into the hands of individual departments, rearranging the city's homepage to allow for more visible information dispersement, and working with consultants on a project-by-project basis to manage and market the messages coming from City Hall.
Serving as an inspiration for the city's efforts has been the Town of Middletown, which has in the last several years, embarked on an ambitious upgrade to its online presence. According to Howington, she's spoken with Middletown Town Administrator Shawn Brown about Newport's own upgrades, which will include automated publishing tools to alert resident of updates via social networks and a more user-friendly interface at its online home, CityofNewport.com.
In addition, Howington suggested that the city engage in a education campaign regarding its Code Red alert system, which notifies the public to critical information during times of natural disaster and other significant events.
The system, which came online last year, had come under fire in the aftermath of last year's Hurricane Irene after residents were left confused by warnings to evacuate parts of the city.
What doesn't appear to be on the horizon is a dedicated public relations officer.
According to Howington, she had initially thought about hiring someone to the staff to specifically handle public relations for departments across City Hall. However, after deliberation, she said that she's "migrated toward using different firms and different people" to take on individual projects on a contractual basis.
Whatever system is designed to improve outbound communication, Councilor Justin S. McLaughlin said that the city should also spend time improving its inbound capabilities.
"We need to close the feedback loop as well," he said.
Installing a visible tool on the city's Web site to allow residents to ask questions and make suggestions for improving City Hall would be a good first step, he said.
However, beyond that, he proposed charging a working group to develop ideas to improve the city's marketing and communications efforts.
Ron Becker, a member of the Alliance for a Livable Newport, was one of a handful of people in attendance on Saturday.
He suggested that the council make it a policy to solicit more input during meetings from the general public.
Meanwhile, ALN President Isabel Griffith wondered how the city might de-mystify municipal government. "A lot of people don't go to City Council meetings because they're intimidated," she said, offering up a proposal to institute some form of "civics 101" to the general public.
And for those who do participate in the process – like Beth Milham, for example – there was a plea for more interaction between the council and the city's various volunteer boards and commissions.
Milham, who co-chairs the city's Energy and Environment Committee, urged the council to adopt a more proactive approach to keeping up with the volunteers who spend so much time working on local issues like beach management, handicap accessibility, and harbor matters.
To that point, McLaughlin suggested adding to the docket an item dealing specifically with reports back from the council's various liaison assignments.
Other news stemming from the meeting included a commitment by the staff to change the way the city's Capital Improvement Plan is developed; a report indicating progress in project coordination between the Public Services and Public Utilities departments; and at least the tacit commitment to engaging in a continuous improvement process for municipal employees.
On the latter point, Mayor Stephen C. Waluk relayed a thought he had while walking down Spring Street earlier in the week.
As Waluk told it, having grown up in the neighborhood, he couldn't help but notice the missing street sign at the top of Bachellor Street. He made a mental note, and passed it along to the administration.
The incident reminded Waluk of a conversation he had years ago, when he was told it was common practice for police officers to report even seemingly small issues like potholes to the city's public works department as a normal course of duty.
The idea, he said, "is about being aware of our surroundings" and taking pride in the city.
The council is expected to follow up on Saturday's strategy session in the coming weeks. Councilors Naomi Neville and Kathryn E. Leonard were not able to attend the morning meeting.