F.C. Manager Proposes Cutting Communication With Public 75%

Digging as a group into the line items of Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shield’s recommended budget for the first time last Monday night, the Falls Church City Council learned that among Shields’ proposals is a drastic cutback in the delivery of City Hall’s information flow to the public.

Shields has called for scaling back the publication of the City’s “Weekly Focus” public information pages in the Falls Church News-Press from once a week to once a month, anticipating a savings to the City of almost $40,000.

The pages have appeared without fail in every edition of the News-Press, which is delivered to every household in the City of Falls Church, since July 2002. The News-Press has provided the City with a more than 50 percent discount on the cost for two full pages of City-crafted news and announcements, an optimal positioning within the paper, and a special link from the front page of the News-Press’ website.

Although Shields’ proposed budget indicates reverting from a weekly to a monthly “Focus” will save $40,000, News-Press Owner Nicholas Benton told the Council in a letter this week that the savings would be more like half that amount, since the cost of space in the newspaper is scaled according to frequency of use.

Noting the array of amenities associated with the current arrangement, Benton said the News-Press offers them “because we believe in their importance to good government and a good community, and hope that commitment and that view is shared by the City Council, at least to the level of a $21,968.48 expenditure.”

At the luncheon of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, Shields confirmed his proposal for a 75 percent reduction in funding for the “Weekly Focus,” while affirming the arrangement since 2002 has “been wonderful for the City” since the newspaper “goes to every household in the City.” He affirmed to the News-Press last week that the arrangement is both the “most effective” and the “most cost effective” way for City Hall to communicate with the citizens of the City.

At the work session Monday, the City’s Communications Director Barbara Gordon noted the growing role of the City’s website, and other on-line modes of access to citizens, such as a Facebook page that has accumulated over 600 “friends.”

However, Benton commented this week that “the effectiveness of any form of web communique for reaching the general public, even in a highly educated community like Falls Church, simply cannot hold a candle to the practice of placing two full pages of information onto the doorstep of every citizen every week, not by a long shot.”

“It’s one thing to reach the City’s small cadre of activists and already-involved citizens. It’s quite another to reach everybody,” he said.

The unique “private-public partnership” between the City and the News-Press arose out of a measured and creative effort by the late Dan McKeever, Falls Church city manager during key years earlier in the decade.

McKeever sought an optimal way of being in touch with the Falls Church citizenry, so he tasked his Communication Department with conducting a thorough survey of the citizens, not wanting to rely on hearsay or opinion.

The results were overwhelming, confirming that Falls Church residents acknowledged getting the vast majority of their information about what goes on in the City from the News-Press. Other means, such as the City’s website, existing Focus newsletter and cable television operation, were far down on the list.

From that, McKeever put the publication of a “Weekly Focus” out to bid, and the News-Press won, with the publication of the weekly pages beginning July 4, 2002. The contract with the News-Press was renewed two times since then, including last summer, when the News-Press’ was the only bid for a continuation of the service.

The executive director of one City non-profit expressed dismay over the current plan to drastically scale back the service, noting that in addition to providing reliable and accessible information about City and school activities, it also promotes the efforts of local non-profits trying to support and enhance the City and its schools. They will suffer considerably if the pages are provided only once per month, she noted.