On his first day in office, Missoula Mayor John Engen broadcast clearly that city communications are going to become a priority in coming months, and that an ombudsman position of some sort is in the works to help citizens resolve questions and problems involving city hall.
“My vision is to have a person with the resources to help almost any citizen deal with any issue without having to scramble through a series of voice mail and red tape,” says Engen, a former newspaperman and owner of Engen Creative, a local advertising and publishing company. “I think this job and our duties largely have to do with relationships and communication. That’s my background so I’m very interested in enhancing that.”
Engen isn’t the only one interested in creating a two-way channel between citizens and the city in the form of an ombudsman. A recent study performed for the city’s local government study commission found only about a third of citizens think the city has good communication skills. And at a recent commission meeting, several members suggested that could be improved by hiring an ombudsman or increasing the role of the city’s communications officer.
Shaun Gant currently works part-time in the position, helping various departments write and distribute news releases, updating the city’s website and serving as a liaison to the public. Though she’s currently a full-time high school English teacher, she says, she’s hoping to return to the city job full-time at the end of the school year because Missoula needs someone fully dedicated to the job.
Besides increasing the volume of already-existing forms of communication, Gant sees plenty of room for new ideas like a weekly e-newsletter about city happenings, expanded Missoula Community Access Channel coverage or streaming City Council meetings on the Web.
Engen says he’s interested in those and other new ideas.
“Fundamentally, I think we need to be communicating earlier and more clearly with citizens, and there’re lots of ways to do that,” he says.