Communication is essential to building trust | Guest Column | Sept. 2

Recent events have served to remind the City Council of the need to communicate honestly and directly with one another in order to avoid misunderstandings and to preserve the trust we have worked to build over the last year and a half.

We must also consider the implications of a lack of direct communication between the City Council and the community.

Failing to respond to allegations of lack of transparency or defensive maneuvering by the city can only serve to undermine public trust, and at a time when our No. 1 priority is rebuilding trust, that is a serious matter.

There are many factors at work to frustrate our ability to speak directly and meaningfully to the community. We have few avenues of communication, limited budget resources, restrictions of the Open Public Meetings Act, genuine differences of opinion on council, pending litigation and the part-time nature of our positions, just to name a few.

The result is more often than not a failure to communicate beyond the airing of our public meetings, which are viewed by only a fraction of the community.

Into this information vacuum comes rumor, innuendo, supposition, newspaper articles and blog comments that generally attempt to construct the truth out of random quotes and isolated facts, and which are often colored by the perspective and politics of their authors and promoters.

The City Council has unanimously identified communication as a key priority at every retreat since January 2010. Yet it seems that substantive decision making always gets in the way of taking the time to craft a communications plan to explain those decisions.

If there is one thing that must be communicated, and communicated on a regular basis, it is that we hear the community’s  concerns, that we take them seriously and that we are working to find solutions even when it seems that there is silence emanating from City Hall.

We hear the call for a Shoreline Management Plan update (SMP) that respects private property interests even as it meets state mandates, and we hear that many property owners are fearful about the impacts of proposed regulations which they have been led to believe are a done deal.

The fact is that the council has just begun our study of the draft regulations and we still have nearly as many questions as the community.

We will continue to accept public comment over the next three months and I would encourage every interested member of the public to go to the city website, review the schedule posted there and to attend our meetings or write to us and participate in the open and ongoing conversation.

We have also heard from citizens who are concerned about the relationship between our police department and the community.

No one in the community, the police department or at City Hall should be satisfied with citizens having less than full confidence in the performance of a department responsible for such a critical service.

For that reason, over the last year and a half, City Council has been discussing how best to address these community concerns.

The City has since hired a regionally and nationally recognized consultant on police internal investigations, to evaluate the process used to respond to complaints about officer conduct.

The city has also contracted with a nationally recognized consultant, Lexipol, to review the General Orders Manual and rules under which officers operate.

When these first steps are concluded, I expect the City Council to move forward with the development of a more comprehensive independent and professional analysis of procedures and practices.

These are just two instances where, in the absence of clear communication from the city, fear and misunderstanding have proliferated.

It is clear, now that the city’s financial crisis has calmed and we begin to settle into our new form of government, we must make the development and funding of a communications plan a priority for the city in 2012.

In the meantime, as I often say to my own friends and neighbors, if you have questions or want to verify if the outrageous thing you just read or heard is true, pick up the phone or get online and ask us.

There’s nothing better than honest and direct communication.

Kirsten Hytopoulos is a first-term council member and is currently the city’s council-elected mayor.

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