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First Selectman Peggy Lyons is in the process of consolidating a wide-ranging new communications plan intended to both spark participation in town government as well as keep residents abreast of departmental projects and cut down on complaints.
Lyons presented a preliminary draft that laid out the somewhat fragmented nature of how town departments have thus far handled resident complaints or disseminated information about their workings, which revealed plenty of areas for improvement, she said.
After making government transparency and increased public participation in town workings central to her platform when she successfully campaigned for office last year, Lyons said she is going to continue to push for these things across the board.
There is no single employee who handles communications in the town, Lyons said, something that’s unlikely to change. She said that her goal broadly will be to find out what ways the town’s various officials and leaders have used most effectively to get their message out and consolidate the best platforms and strategies.
“I don’t think it’s good to have departments do it all on their own—I think the content, yes, because the driving [of] content is relevant to their department. But I think what the public wants is a consistent way of getting information, and right now it’s kind of erratic,” Lyons said.
Lyons broke down all the different types of information the town puts out, sorted by the platform used to communicate it. She said that she was somewhat surprised herself, as were many other town officials, at how many different ways information is sent out to residents, from social media platforms to traditional newspaper notices to automated phone calls.
“Part of it is at least developing roles and responsibilities,” she said.
One of the big issues that came up, Lyons said, was projects. Many people either hear about a town project once, and then are unable to find any updates if they have an interest or concern, or alternatively do not hear about the project until after the public hearing or approval process is well under way, according to Lyons.
This is a particular problem with the Planning & Zoning Commission, she said, which often handles projects that have a broad public interest, but does not have a consistent, detailed way of notifying people in advance of hearings or evaluations.
“They do what they’re required by regulation to do. They send out a letter to the neighbors they post their agendas—it’s all posted online, but it requires the townsperson to actually have to know to check,” she said.
Lyons said she has heard a good number of residents express surprise at projects that went through the regular planning and zoning process, indicating there might be both an interest and an need to improve the delivery of messaging concerning those projects.
Every town department has at her request recently put together a list of projects with current statuses and expected completion or deadline dates, according to Lyons. She said she is currently trying to figure out how best to make that sort of information available to the public.
Going forward, Lyons broke down some short-term initiatives that she said she hopes will increase cooperation and spread information faster and more efficiently.
Social media will continue to be a powerful tool, she said, particularly for emergency alerts. She said she hopes to leverage the official Madison Facebook page, which has more than 2,000 followers, to magnify messaging coming from smaller departments, from Beach & Recreation to Animal Control.
“It’s progress, just trying to sit down and see what we have, and then people start to realize it’s a little more complicated,” Lyons said.
Another potential upcoming initiative is the livestreaming (posting of video online in real time) of Board of Selectmen meetings, which Lyons described as a “trial period.” The town chose YouTube as its platform, and Lyons said that pending the results of a planned test run this week, the town will broadcast its first meeting ever on Monday, Feb. 24.
Livestreaming was another initiative Lyons brought up on the campaign trail. She said eventually she hopes people might be able to submit questions or public comments in real-time during meetings, though that functionality is unlikely to launch at the beginning.
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