Current and future members of the Fort Payne City Council met last week in a work session to discuss ways to improve public involvement.
Incoming council president Walter Watson said he thinks the city can and should be more transparent about how taxpayer dollars are being spent.
Incoming council member Phillip Smith suggested hiring a full-time person to proactively share unambiguous information on social media and answer questions.
Council member Lynn Brewer said the city’s website should also be better used.
“We’ve talked about having a marketing person. Events need to go through that person and let them handle it,” Brewer said. She also suggested individual council members could do more outreach as guest speakers to civic clubs.
Mayor-elect Brian Baine said he plans to partner with the Chamber of Commerce and do more frequent “state of the city” type addresses so citizens can ask questions. “You’ve got different departments and agencies putting out messages, and it would be better if we all put out the same message. We can put out a little Facebook blurb every week telling them what’s going on in their city. If they get on Facebook, which 95% of the people do, they can see it,” Baine said.
The city is also considering partnering with FPTV, the high school video curriculum, to televise council meetings as they broadcast high school sports.
There are nuances the public isn’t always aware of, such as the fact that Gault Avenue is a state highway and thus, not the street department’s jurisdiction to simply fix on its own.
A spectator at the work session, Michael Farmer, said the information shared in the work session explained some things that hadn’t made complete sense.
“Perception is other peoples’ reality,” Farmer said. “Some people may not know that you don’t control [Gault Avenue]. I learned a little bit today about that. I didn’t realize the city had moved the water lines so it won’t have as many [pavement] cuts after it’s paved the next time. I’m happy with what I am seeing and hearing today.”
“Hopefully, you will leave this meeting today and help us to spread the word,” Watson told Farmer. “We know what’s going on, but sometimes during our council meetings, we need to better explain what’s happening.”
Farmer asked why council meetings are held at noon rather than evenings. Council member Johnny Eberhart explained 6 p.m. meetings often conflicted with activities in the community such as youth sports in which department heads do not want to miss seeing their children participate.
“Unless you have something on the agenda, very few people come to a council meeting,” said Council member Wade Hill. “If you have something important enough to put on the agenda, I’d think you could [make arrangements to attend during the daytime]. We tried night-time meetings a time or two and nobody came.”
Hill said people can watch Facebook live streaming of council meetings, but questions aren’t immediately answered.
“I hate Facebook. It’s a necessary evil in this day and time, but if we had someone to answer properly…” Hill said. “[Users] just keep feeding off one another. They went on and on for three days about the dirt pile at Jefferson’s. [Mayor Larry Chesser] finally got on there and told them, ‘Calm down. It’s a dirt pile. We’re stockpiling the dirt.’ Just questions like that. People aren’t going to come to a council meeting to find that out. They’re just going to go on Facebook and gripe.”
Former candidate Roger Ingle also attended the work session.
“One thing I saw a lot of during the campaign [is] when these false rumors come out, it hurts the whole city,” Ingle said, giving the example of speculation that Fort Payne lacks big box retailers “[because] they speculate that our city people don’t want them to come. That makes no sense to me, and I’m assuming we have fine people here looking out for the best interests of Fort Payne and that’s not a reality, I would hope. But yet, the people believe that.”