by CHRIS ROGERS
This fall, the Winona City Council nearly created a new city staff position: a communications coordinator. The estimated $99,000 position — including salary and benefits — was the last thing grudgingly cut from the city’s 2020 budget, city manager Steve Sarvi said. Several City Council members expressed interest in trying to fund such a position in the future. So what is the job and why do council members think it’s needed?
“I think there’s a lot of communication from the city that could improve if we have someone who is actually tasked with that. I think it’s a position that we need to have,” Mayor Mark Peterson said during budget meetings in August, when the idea of a communications coordinator was first publicly discussed.
Peterson and other city leaders described a wide range of potential duties for a communications coordinator from updating the city’s website and enhancing the city’s social media presence, to leading citizen engagement and public outreach, to acting as public relations manager for the city.
Asked by City Council member Michelle Alexander what the city would be getting for nearly $100,000 a year, Sarvi responded at the August meeting, “Basically what were getting is someone who is keeping an eye on our messaging to the community and feedback from the community. So that’s one part. Second is our systems: so our websites, all of the ones we have through the city — trying to get them to coordinate and be better organized. Because it’s got to be better than the way we’re doing it right now.” Currently some city departments run their own social media pages, but the city as whole does not have any social media pages. “There’s all these different things going on. There’s not really a coherent system bringing them together. The other thing is, if the council is trying to get messages out to the community in an emergency situation, that’s someone who can help manage that process as well. And someone who can help us all shape our discussions,” Sarvi said, suggesting a communications coordinator could help city leaders shape their message should the city decide to try to pitch voters on a half-cent sales tax referendum, for instance.
“I think a communications person is somebody who would coordinate the communications for the city — everything from the website to social media, coordinating things like the press conference we had last week with the Fastenal folks,” Peterson said in a November 6 interview. “I think that it’s very fragmented on how that information is put out by the city. I don’t like our website for one thing. I think we can do a better job of communicating with the public, and I think a communications person would do a good job in helping us achieve that.”
Though the City Council ultimately decided against raising taxes to pay for the position in 2020, a majority of council members said they supported the idea, including Peterson and council members Pam Eyden, Eileen Moeller, and Paul Schollmeier. Each latched onto the idea for slightly different reasons.
“There’s a lot of information that people have difficulty accessing even if it should be easy to navigate,” Moeller said at the August meeting. In an interview this week, she stated she has heard from numerous citizens frustrated by trying to find agendas and minutes on the city’s website. City meeting materials are posted online, but are not always easily located by first-time users. Similarly, a coordinator could help field questions from citizens or proactively communicate about upcoming projects, Moeller suggested. “If there’s going to be a road shut down or maybe a utility is going to be shut off at a certain time, the communications person would be the person going to all those departments and getting the details, and then they would be able to condense that into a really concise sound bite, press release, whatever, and then they would be able to get that out to the media, so there would be a really consistent message from the city,” Moller explained.
“I want people to get information so they can participate in the public process,” Moeller stated, adding, “Any way we can make being involved and in-the-know with city matters easier for community members then that’s something I’m in support of.”
Moeller and Schollmeier also envisioned a communications coordinator helping the city to market itself, its amenities, and its programs. “We’ve been working really hard as a community to sell ourselves, and we’re selling ourselves short because we don’t actually have the marketing chops vis-à-vis our website and our social media presence,” Schollmeier said. “We have all these assets in the community that we’ve been talking about this evening,” he said, referring to parks and recreation centers, “And a lot times people don’t know how heavy we are with those assets and what kind of quality of life we can offer.”
Alexander was the one of the only council members who opposed the idea. Spending $100,000 a year on a staff position does not get the city what it really needs: a new website, Alexander argued. “I’m very leery of spending $100,000 when it doesn’t actually get us the website; it gets us the person who is going to oversee what is essentially a horrible website,” Alexander stated. Instead, the city should invest in a top-notch website, hire a company to update it, and increase an existing staff member’s salary and responsibilities to include social media management.
Alexander expressed wonder at how managing social media accounts would require a $100,000-a-year position. Sarvi responded, explaining that the $100,000 includes benefits — the salary is just an entry-level city salary, like a firefighter’s. “But a firefighter runs into burning buildings,” Alexander said.
“It’s easy to say someone could just take on that project and we’ll give them some more, but we’re already maxing what our employees are doing,” human resources manager Deb Beckman advised the council.
Managing social media accounts well has become a complex skill set, said Moeller, who herself works in marketing and communications for Great River Shakespeare Festival. “You could give everyone a Facebook account, but are they going to manage them in an effective way? For better or worse, social media has become something that takes time to manage well,” she stated.
Sometimes communications professionals can act as media handlers, requiring reporters to funnel their questions through them or limiting access to public officials. Peterson and Sarvi said if the city hires a communications coordinator, that would not be the case. Instead, they said they saw the coordinator’s role as helping promote positive news.
“I would expect them to do things like what’s happening with the school district and contact the media and say, ‘Hey, this is going on,’” Sarvi said, referring to Winona Area Public Schools communications coordinator’s role in alerting local media to potential stories. “My God, we had the [Minnesota House of Representatives] mini-session here, and I don’t know of any Rochester television station that showed up,” Sarvi stated. “To have someone on staff who can reach out and do that sort of thing and stay on top of it, that would be important.”
“I think they can be good at getting good news out there,” Peterson said. Not that they spin it, but that they get it out in a way that’s favorable for the city.”
Alexander said she would have a hard time telling taxpayers to cough up another $100,000 because, “You’re getting a new employee who is going to sell the city to you.”
As for marketing Winona’s assets, “I always assumed Visit Winona was our marketing. That’s what they’re supposed to do, is market the city. I never really thought the job of government was to market the city to people,” Alexander stated at the August meeting.
Moeller responded, saying that Visit Winona markets Winona to visitors, while a communications coordinator would inform residents.
Peterson said he wants to discuss the position again next summer, when the city sets its 2021 budget. Moeller and Eyden also supported funding the position in the future.
Council member Al Thurley said he needed more information before he could support the position. “I’m not interested in changing our proposed tax levy for this year for that, maybe next year, but not this year for me anyway,” he stated.
In an interview this week, council member George Borzyskowski said, "We don't need the position."