The Herald Bulletin

September 6, 2013

Smith: Public information officer vital to keeping residents informed

By Stuart Hirsch
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — It isn’t unusual for large cities like Indianapolis to have several public information officers. They might work for the mayor, or in key departments handling media inquiries, or manage the content of government websites.

Although a team of communication specialists to handle those duties isn’t necessary in cities the size of Anderson or Elwood, there nevertheless is a need to have someone on staff to communicate with the public, officials in both communities said in interviews last week.

Charlee Turner filled the role for Mayor Kevin Smith until she left the position last week to pursue career opportunities out of state. Smith said Friday that he is reviewing candidates to fill the position.

But Turner’s departure raises questions about whether such a position is vital amid declining property tax revenue and the layoff of city park employees and firefighters last year and this.

The salary range for the public information is listed from $41,823 to $60,606 annually, according to the Anderson City Clerk. Turner’s salary was at the low end of that scale.

“The value of that position for a place like Anderson is that we have so many projects and activities that city government is involved with,” Smith said.

He said the city needs an employee to fulfill the mission of providing accurate and honest information about city government.

“We have been elected to change the direction of the city,” Smith said. “It’s important to have people working with you that understand what those goals are and to help inform the public of your progress.

“If anything, the job of public information officer has grown much more complicated than it was 20 years ago because of the changes and growth of information sources we as citizens have access to,” Smith added.

In her role as Anderson’s public information officer, Turner also worked on special projects, such as revitalizing the Mayor’s Youth Commission, and was assisting an outside vendor with creating a new city website.

When Ron Arnold took office as mayor of Elwood in 2012, he asked long-time associate Jeff Howe to assist him with public information in the city. Howe isn’t a full-time employee, but a contractor who’s paid $2,500 per month to handle public information duties, and an additional $250 per month to produce a monthly newsletter sent out in city utility bills.

Although his role in Elwood includes handling press inquiries, Howe said a lot of the work he does for the city has occurred behind the scenes, helping the heads of city departments coordinate their communication.

Because he has a background in radio and television production as well as traditional communications work, Howe said one of his goals has been to raise the visibility of Elwood throughout Indiana and globally.

During the severe flooding in Elwood in early spring, many people were following live feeds on the city Facebook page, to stay informed about where the most serious problem areas were.

In addition, he said that with a presence on Facebook and the Internet, Elwood has been able to attract interest from global companies that are interested in expanding their business.

One of the programs he began in concert with a local businessman is a weekly Internet-based program with the mayor, department heads and other community leaders where important community issues are discussed.

Friday, that program was held via Skype while Arnold is on a trade mission in Japan with Gov. Mike Pence and Indiana economic development officials.

“Now more than ever before, cities and towns need someone on staff who knows how to communicate,” using the latest technology, Howe said.

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