'A Failure To Communicate'

By: Tim Wood

Town To Draft Protocols To Better Inform Citizens, Businesses

CHATHAM – It's clear that town officials dropped the ball in the way downtown merchants were informed of sidewalk replacement work that will impact holiday shopping. And it's not the first time there's been a failure to communicate over a town project.

“I want to stress how important it is that we have better communications,” said Selectman Cory Metters, who owns a shop downtown. “We have to improve this.”

While the town has a number of options for communicating with residents and business owners, there are no specific protocols in place, and the town's presence on social media – a crucial vehicle for contacting residents, business owners and the public in general – is minimal.

The town used direct mail to contact downtown property owners about the sidewalk project, which began this week and is scheduled to last for 10 weeks, well into the holiday shopping season. Snail-mail letters reached the property owners but not, in many cases, tenants who lease their shops. Officials ended up working with the chamber of commerce to get the contact information for shop owners in the impacted area, from the rotary to Cross Street, said Town Manager Jill Goldsmith.

Further complicating matters, said Metters, was that the letters were sent over the Columbus Day long weekend, and it took a while for the news to filter down to tenants. There were also communications issues with the ongoing West Chatham Roadway Project, he added, particularly with the town not following through with initial assurances of signage informing motorists that businesses in the work area were open. Those signs were eventually put in place.

“We've got to find a way to do the outreach, and also find a way to follow through, to make sure everybody's accountable for what we put in place,” Metters said.

As a resident of Shattuck Place, Selectman Dean Nicastro said he never received notice from the town when sewer work was being done on the street. Fortunately, the contractor kept residents up to date about where work was happening on a daily basis.

“It's a really good thing for people to hear from the town” when they are impacted by such a project, he said.

Press releases go out regularly regarding sewer work, Goldsmith said, and the town is fortunate to have a good relationship with the local media. “That's been key for us,” she said. But the town lacks a specific person in charge of communications and existing staff don't always have the time to devote to those efforts. A proposal to establish a communications position was in the current year's budget but was cut to save money after the pandemic struck.

“If we had this staff person in place we might not be here talking about this tonight,” Nicastro said. Selectmen had backed the new position but it was opposed by the finance committee. It should be revisited, selectmen agreed. Nicastro suggested the board make it clear to the finance committee and to voters that having a staffer dedicated to communications is now necessary in order to carry out town business.

“We need to be very aggressively proactive going forward if we're going to resolve some of these issues,” he said.

While the police, fire and recreation departments have Facebook accounts, and the police and fire have Twitter accounts, both of which often share general town information, the town itself does not have accounts on either social media platform. Because anything that's posted is a public record, it must be archived, and the ability to do that currently does not exist, Goldsmith said. That may be possible with a pending upgrade of the town's website, she added.

Current communication methods used by the town include direct mail, the Swift 911 Emergency Notification System, Channel 18, project pages on the town website and the town manager's community update newsletters, begun by Goldsmith in April sent to subscribers of the Swift 911 system who have provided email addresses. The newsletter includes COVID-19 updates, project updates and community information; it is also posted on the town's website.

While the Swift 911 system can contact residents in emergencies or other situations and can be programmed down to the neighborhood level, it depends on people subscribing and providing phone numbers and email addresses. It can also send text messages and there is a separate protocol to contact town staff. The system was originally purchased by the town to provide notification of water main breaks, but has been used to issue notice of storms, flooding, and to send messages regarding the COVID-19 outbreak. Discussions are underway about upgrading to an enhanced Swift 911 system, Goldsmith said.

The town has also partnered with the chamber of commerce to post information and do mass e-mailings. The upgrade of the town's website will also integrate a mass email system.

Even with the availability of these venues to get out information, there are no protocols in place how it should be done, Goldsmith said. “There's a lot of thought that needs to be put into our communications,” she said.

Town projects should have a communication plan “baked into” contracts, Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said, so that officials know timetables in advance and can publicize them.

“It's not good for people to be blindsided,” he said. That's something that can be investigated, Goldsmith said.

There's no need for a big communications plan, said Selectman Peter Cocolis. Reassessing the addition of a staff person to take on the task would be “well worth it” and potentially save time and money. “What are we doing right now? We're spending a lot of time responding to communication issues,” he said.

“We're here because of a failure to communicate,” Goldsmith said. Drafting a communication protocol is a priority for her, she added.

“We're still a small town, but we'll do what we can,” she said.