Increasingly troubled by a perceived if amorphous failure of communication between the city and residents, the Flagler Beach City Commission Thursday evening entertained the possibility of contracting with a local Realtor in a “private-public” partnership that would have enabled the Realtor to run what amounts to the city’s PR operation on a publicly accessible but privately owned website.
Commissioners became equally troubled by the proposal, put forth by John Horan of Palm Wave Realty, especially as it became apparent that no such proposal was opened up to other companies or individuals potentially interested in providing a similar service, and as cost, proprietary and transparency matters became issues.
Commissioners finally decided to reject that approach and focus instead on two other avenues: a new app the city is launching on Monday, a new Flagler Beach city government Facebook page to be put together in coming weeks or months, and efforts to make the city’s website, a relatively easy and friendly portal of information, easier and friendlier to use.
The decision to develop a new Facebook page was puzzling: the city already has an immensely popular and well-run Facebook page–the one run by the Flagler Beach Police Department, which has 13,000 followers (compared to Palm Coast’s 24,000, though Palm Coast has 20 times the population of Flagler Beach), and is updated a half dozen times a day with city-related announcements, tips, meeting reminders and other items.
The commission also considered hiring Cindy Dalecki’s Marketing 2 Go, a leading social media, marketing and PR agency, to coordinate and channel its message to the public, but the $24,000-a-year cost decided the commissioners against that approach.
Commissioners continue to be of different minds about issuing a newsletter, with a majority of them thinking residents will not read it. City Manager William Whitson has been issuing something like a newsletter electronically, sending “tidbits” of information to Flagler Strong, the local non-profit that serves as a voluntary adjunct to the city’s civic efforts, but that’s had limited exposure.
All of which points to a commission and an administration still wrestling with a Babel of approaches, none so coherent, comprehensive or convincing as to suggest that the city’s communications issues are about to be resolved. That’s assuming there is a communications problem: Commissioner Jane Mealy, for one, doesn’t see it, nor has the rest of the commission defined the nature of the problem with more than anecdotal examples culled from residents’ complaints during public comment periods.
Commissioners have criticized Whitson is his one and only evaluation so far for poor communications. But that’s a different matter: it had to do with communications between Whitson and the commission specifically, as when commissioners request this or that bit of information, or seek to know something before they find out about it in the press. Whitson has been working on improving that side of his operation, with some success.
At times, commissioners discussed the two spheres–Whitson-commission communications, as opposed to city-resident communications–as if they were one and the same. But on the whole, the long discussion that took up much of a three-hour workshop on the subject Thursday evening had to do with residents’ needs.
“Communication has gotten better in the three years that I’ve been sitting here. It’s not where it needs to be, but it’s getting better,” Commissioner Deborah Phillips said. She wanted to “see where we’re at and where we want to be in the future.”
Whitson drew up a list of initiatives. He cited a pair of town halls the city hosted on hurricane recovery (not mentioning that the first one drew more criticism for being more window dressing than substance), and the app the city was preparing to make available to the public. He said Vern Shanks’s local radio station would welcome doing podcasts and interviews with city officials, though if such programs on WNZF, involving county officials, are an indication, they’re not exactly ratings gold. (Shanks produces the city’s First Fridays.)
The Horan proposal isn’t quite dead yet: the way commissioners see it, they want to give their in-house options a try first and see how that will go. Horan said he’d acquired the site flaglerbeach.info and has been working on it for months. He was interested in developing it “in conjunction with my business,” and with city business. Horan describes the site as a “public-private partnership.” (The site is not active.)
But it was Matt Morton, the former Palm Coast City Manager and now an associate of Horan’s, who presented the website idea in greater detail.
“We can never communicate enough,” Morton told the commission. Framing his presentation as just that–he was presenting, not initiating–he said the proposal was to make the site “the trusted, preferred and most responsive source of news and information for the residents of the city of Flagler Beach,” making it “adaptive” to issues, seasons, events and emergencies. But he then described what amounts to a PR–or propaganda–effort rather than to a news source, a site that would be “promoting the competency, the vibrancy and the joy of living in Flagler Beach.”
It would do so by relying on publicly available information that it would curate and disseminate through various means. Horan said he would assign one employee at his office to working the site, in addition to himself and Morton, and would weekly harvest information from the city with a contact on Mondays.
Whitson said a site representative could sit in on staff meetings to gather information.
“We’re not looking to be the sole proprietor of information,” Morton said. “We’re just looking to also capture information that the city already would or probably is sharing with any email sites, news sources. It’s all PR, we’re not looking for sole proprietorship if we come to some relationship with the city on information. We’re just looking for stuff in the public anyone has access to.”
Whitson described it in terms that didn’t necessarily make the site’s case: “as an additional layer” on top of the city’s website and the police’s Facebook page, not to mention other Flagler Beach-related Facebook pages that have their own copious following, such as Flagler Beach for Friends and What’s Happening in Flagler Beach, to name just two. There are more.
Whitson said the realtor’s site would be an addition to the city website, an “additional layer.” But it would not belong to the city, even if it was populated with city information and, after a time, an agreement fell through: Horan would not give the site to the city. If an agreement were to be worked out, Drew Smith, the city attorney, said it would require a “full-blown contract.”
Commissioners, picking up on the oddity of the proposal, were very quickly skeptical. “I think it’s going to be a great promotion for your business,” Commissioner Jane Mealy said. “I don’t see what it’s going to do for the city government, if we still need to have our own website, and I believe we do.” She disputed the notion that the city’s website is hard to navigate: “Every time I look for something, I can find it.”
Mealy asked whether the city’s coming app would duplicate what Horan’s site is proposing. “Yes,” Whitson said, “there would be duplication of information,” with a lot of the information already being out there. Whitson and Horan were not on the same page on that score: Horan said he saw no redundancy, though it wasn’t clear how he was in a position to tell, not knowing what information would be on his site. Whitson, in contrast, did know.
It was in the context of Horan’s website that the city discussed employing Marketing 2 Go, whose talent would be used to gather information. The city estimated that work would entail 12 hours a week, for $2,000 a month.
“My thought is $2,000 per month is a very high price. We have a Facebook page, run by our chief of police, on top of being the chief of police–for nothing,” Mayor Suzie Johnston said. Any such proposal would have to be put out for bid, she said, stressing that the price was “absolutely” out of the question.
“It’s fantastic it’s beautiful I think our residents would love it, but I just get very, very concerned about getting data to you,” Phillips told Horan, waving a different red flag.
Horan said he’s spent “thousands of dollars” to build the site so far, and would have to spend “between $5,000 and $7,000 to “build out” the city’s portion. But his presentation did not include a business plan, nor a list of qualifications to do what he was proposing to do. The discussion did not venture into the slippery territory of a private company running a city-information website in the context of the open-record law, which requires all such records and their channels, including the way they are acquired, curated and selected, to be open to public inspection.
Cooley reminded his colleagues that the expansion of communications was already planned and budgeted well before anything like Horan’s proposal emerged. “It hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “So I guess where my heartburn is on a lot of these things is, these are new things that we’re going to have to spend money on after we’ve already done a budget that includes a lot of communication stuff in it.”
He said he’d prefer the commission to exhaust all the priorities it set out for itself, and to focus some attention on making the city more transparent. He favored “any ideas that are not $20,000.” That turned the discussion away from Horan’s proposal and back to what the city either had at its disposal already, such as the police department’s Facebook page, or improvements it could make from within.
“We are launching this app next week, the week after. I would like to see what kind of usage we get from that,” Mealy said. But she cautioned: the city could disseminate all sorts of issues: that doesn’t mean residents would care. “Each person in this town has different things they’re interested in. Or they’re interested in getting up, looking at the sunrise, going to the beach, looking at the sunset, and watching television, and hopefully the city just goes on its way.”
Look for that app next week. Look for an improved website. Look for city tables at First Friday. Look, possibly, for town-hall style meetings where residents could gather information. Look for the city’s Facebook page at an indeterminate time in the future. Whether there’s enough bandwidth in residents’ minds to make room for all that is an unanswered question.