A Failure to Communicate? Town and Village Leaders Struggle to Reach Residents

“Citizens and government, can we talk?” was the question at the Larchmont-Mamaroneck League of Women Voters’ Issues Breakfast on Friday, March 13 at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck, NY. Judging from the sparse turn out for a panel that included the leaders of all three local governments, the answer is, “Not very well.”

Despite numerous new communication technologies, municipal officials are finding it harder than ever to get their messages received and read by their constituents.

“We have communication overload and fatigue,” said Mayor Anne McAndrews, who was running from breakfast to a meeting with Con-Edison, also on the topic of communication and crisis management.

The problem is less during an emergency, she said, since the community is actively seeking information. During Super Storm Sandy, the municipalities felt that the utility company “turned local governments into their customer service,” said Mayor McAndrews.

The Town of Mamaroneck, Village of Larchmont and Village of Mamaroneck did deploy all their resources to get out emergency notices – including robo-calls, text messages, e-mail alerts, posters at the Larchmont Library where some utilities were still functioning, and police knocking on doors. “People can cope with a crisis if they know something,” said Mayor McAndrews.

Asked by LWV-LM Co-President Diane Drew, “What’s working?” officials mentioned the emergency, automated call system – or “robo-call” – which is quite costly, said Mayor McAndrews.  Everyone with a registered telephone number (obtained from the telephone companies or from the resident directly) receives a message. However, those who rely on cell phones and keep their numbers private may be left out.  Asking for contact information – once listed in a public phone book – has now become the “most intimate of questions,” said Mayor McAndrews.

However, robo-calls are saved for the rare emergency. “We know it’s an intrusion,” said Supervisor Seligson. The municipalities no longer mail out regular newsletters to the entire community. “It required $10,000 for a piece of paper” that was obsolete by the time it arrived in mail boxes, she said.

With other forms of communication – regular board meetings, email updates, websites and Facebook,  for example, “You have to decide for yourself that you want it,” she said. And with “only a few thousand people on our email list, [out of a community of over 11,000,] we know we’re not really reaching everyone.”

As for reaching out to the local press, Supervisor Seligson said she was amazed at the lack of response when she has sent out press releases to local print and online news outlets on topics that she felt were of great importance.

Supervisor Seligson did note the popularity of other new social media. “Should we be using Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat?” she asked. At the same time, she stressed the need for “dialogue and conversation” in a well-run meeting. What we have with the blogs and other social media are “pronouncements and positions,” she said, “Dialogue seems to be lost. We want to have an honest conversation.”  Yet, getting people to turn out for a meeting is very hard, she said. The meetings are broadcast on LMC-TV, but it is not known how many residents are watching. “We don’t have any easy answers,” she said, “We’re working on it.”

Larchmont Village Trustee Lorraine Walsh, who is running for re-election on March 18 and who focuses on communication for her board, said she is reminded of the quote, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

“We seem to be drowning in information,” she said. “but so many times, people come to us and say they didn’t know.”

In addition to the typical new and familiar communication paths, Larchmont Village uses its sign at the Post Office, posters in windows, flyers in mailboxes (for focused alerts). However, it isn’t enough to send the same information out to all the news outlets, said Trustee Walsh, it has to be reworked for each of the different media, and with a very “lean staff” at Village Hall, there aren’t a lot of resources available.

Recently, Larchmont revived its newsletter from Village Hall, distributing it mostly by email with a few hard copies at the library and other community centers. “We provide information in as many formats as we can, but people need to take responsibility for seeking it out,” said Trustee Walsh.

The big question for municipal leaders is, “How do we get the people in the community to be actual seekers of this information?” she said.

The one leader who was more upbeat about the sharing and receiving of information in the community was Mamaroneck Village Mayor Norman Rosenblum. “In Mamaroneck Village we have very active board meetings,” he said, “They’re the best reality show in the nation.”  He said he gets a huge amount of Facebook, email and telephone communication, which he encourages. “Feel free to call, don’t be intimidated,” he said. “We are your servants, you’re not ours.”

“You can’t make people call up,” he said, but, “When they have a problem they will let you know.” He likes the personal touch, as well; he said he walks around the village and people come up to him.

Mamaroneck Village, unlike its neighbors, has a robust political climate. There are hotly contested elections every two years that draw attention from both the media and the residents. There are organized political parties – Republicans, Democrats and Conservatives – who use their own resources to communicate with residents about the major issues. Mamaroneck Village also has big issues that generate controversy and motivate citizens to get involved:  perennial flooding, development in the downtown, and lawsuits over development at the beach and golf clubs.

In contrast, the Village of Larchmont’s election on March 18 is the fifth consecutive election in which there is no opposition.  In the Town of Mamaroneck, the last contested elected was in 2012.

Some audience members weighed in with recommendations. Keith Yizar, a Mamaroneck Village resident whose neighborhood is impacted with regular flooding, suggested, “There should be some degree of volunteers,” as in old-fashioned civil defense officers. Volunteers have assisted with communication in the past in the Village of Larchmont, as well. Maggie Leigh O’Neill, member of the Mamaroneck Village Architectural Review board and the League of Women Voters board, suggested that municipalities create a liaison for communications and “make sure they’re non-partisan.”

NY State Senator George Latimer offered his perspective as the area’s long-term representative. “Things have changed dramatically in 25 years,” he said. With the proliferation of news sources, media and social media, “No one conduit gets the job done – you have to use them all,” he said. Further, “once you put out a press release, you have to reach out and follow up to sell the story,” and explain its significance to the reporters.

As for the receiving end of the news, Senator Latimer said, “We’re a suburban, bedroom community.” Many people don’t think of themselves as local residents and don’t pay attention unless it “affects them in their back yard.” Ultimately, he said, “You have to care enough about your community to tune in.”

LWV-LM Upcoming Programs

The April 16 LWV-LM Book Club at the Larchmont Public Library has been postponed until this fall.

On April 24 is the LWV Luncheon with speaker Zephyr Teachout, 2014 candidate for NY State Governor and author of Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United. Click for more information on the program and to purchase tickets.