BY RANDI BEERS
SPECIAL TO THE TRURO DAILY NEWS
TRURO – The Town of Truro is not the only municipal government in Nova Scotia with a communications officer.
Town council voted unanimously this week to create the new position, which is somewhat similar to areas such as Halifax and Cape Breton Regional Municipality.
According to a new communications policy that has just been implemented, the role of communications officer is intended to “facilitate communication that is co-ordinated and consistent as well as open and responsive.”
This type of policy-making is becoming common in municipal governments, says Dalhousie political science professor Jack Novack.
“Recently there has been a trend towards a corporate services approach to things,” he said. “I can tell you, though, there are no rules for this and that it’s often a point of negotiation.”
Novack, who specializes in municipal government, said there are a variety of ways governments have attempted to make information available and consistent for their constituents.
“Generally speaking, the municipal idea is to really want to get the word out and to get a consistent word out,” he explained.
“The most dysfunctional councils are where nobody speaks on behalf of the municipality and all individual councillors are making comments based on their own opinion. On the worst levels of dysfunction you have public fights.”
Other regional municipalities that have added communications departments to municipal proceedings are Cape Breton Regional Municipality, Halifax Regional Municipality and the Town of New Glasgow.
Kim Dickson, director of marketing and communications for the Town of New Glasgow, explained her role as a communications position with “other responsibilities such as the town website, Facebook and organizing news releases.”
“As communications director I’m not specifically a spokesperson although I do have some responsibility in that area,” she said, adding the mayor is the chief spokesperson for council.
Halifax Regional Municipality has a communications department for their CAO as well as for their mayor’s office, but according to Shauna MacKinley, “I don’t speak for the mayor. I line up media interviews, but he speaks for himself.”
She added that protocol in the HRM is media contact councillors directly and that their cellphone numbers are published on the HRM website.
Cape Breton Regional Municipality does not have a communications policy, but there is a communications advisor in the mayor’s office, Christina Lamey, who described her role as a direct equivalent to MacKinley’s role in the HRM.
In Novack’s opinion, hiring a communications director is a step in the right direction towards better community engagement, but it’s “only about five per cent of the puzzle.”
“I’m quite an advocator for municipalities going beyond the information and constructively engaging citizens,” he said. “If you want a competent director of finance you hire somebody who has a financial background, if you want to build a bridge you hire an engineer, if you want to have somebody who can lead some sort of citizen engagement you should really have somebody who is trained in that area. I think municipalities as a whole do it so poorly, they put no thought into it.”
Novack was able to point to area municipalities that have taken what he sees as more progressive steps in community engagement policies: Cumberland and Inverness Counties are currently looking into hiring professional staff to direct citizen engagement.