Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Communications Critical to Good Government

Serving as Communications Director (previously Public Information Officer) for the City of Falls Church for more than 18 years has been challenging, fulfilling, sometimes trying, and rewarding. Working for a small but full-service government and knowing almost every co-worker by name is delightful and the day-to-day work is never dull. What has given me the greatest satisfaction is the assurance that the work I do – informing the public and employees about City programs, services and activities – is going to help someone be prepared, take action, participate, or just be aware.

Since I have decided to take my career in a new direction, I’ve been reflecting on the high (and not so high) points of the last three decades. As many of you know, I am in my third stint with the City, having worked here in the ‘80s and ‘90s before returning in 2008. To say the third time is a charm (and charming) is true! People have asked me why I came back to The Little City after working in other local governments, the Chamber of Commerce, and at a utility.

Many of the reasons I came back are those Falls Church “champions” who provided the high points in my career. Even at the risk of accidentally omitting someone, here are some of the champions with whom I had the pleasure to work.

• Harry Wells: the City’s first city manager was dedicated to public service and was an inspiration to many employees.

• Don Frady: the retired Public Works Director led efforts to revive the Memorial Day Parade (after the gas crisis hiatus) in the 1980s, now one of the City’s premiere attractions.

• Former residents David Ekert and Annette Mills (recycling coordinator): they were committed to all parts of Falls Church, including environmental protection, Falls Church Cable TV and filmmaking, parks, the history of Falls Church, democracy, the arts and more.

• Former Mayor Carol DeLong: one of the longest serving members of the Planning Commission and City Council (12 years as vice mayor and mayor) who does her homework more thoroughly than almost any elected official I know.

• Chip Hailey: a founding member of the Falls Church Cable TV Access Board, he spent countless hours volunteering in the studio and providing audio and video services to City, school and community organizations with his own equipment and he recognized Cable TV’s potential as a teaching tool and its importance for open government.

I will miss working with fellow employees and residents to make Falls Church an even greater place to live, work & visit.

• Nick Benton: publisher of Falls Church’s local newspaper. Regardless of whether you agree with Nick’s political positions or his style, his newspaper’s coverage of Falls Church has been steadfast.

• City employees who have risen to the challenges of working in a “fish bowl” community with high demands and expectations and for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration, including Brenda, Linda, Rebecca, Howard, Doug, Dave, Danny, Mary and Mary, Harry, Robert, Earl, Richard, Sandy, Susan, the entire City Manager and City Clerk’s offices, and Mike at FCCTV, among others.

While there have been many “highs,” there have also been “lows,” including most recently:

• Diminishing support for City employees’ work environment and compensation, combined with an increased workload. The work force was cut by 14 percent (communications staff was cut by one third), employee take-home pay was reduced, and employees are required to carry heavier work loads and take on new responsibilities.

• The failure to adequately fund routine maintenance/maintenance staff which increases safety and security risks for employees and the public. Problems in City Hall include leaking ceilings, no sprinkler systems, frequently broken elevators, unmet ADA requirements, peeling paint and HVAC deterioration in City Hall, the Community Center and Library.

• An increasing number of meetings. The City Council has increased the frequency of its meetings from two to four times a month which doubles the workload for employees responsible for researching and writing agenda material, meeting preparations, staffing and follow-up.

• What appears to be an increasing involvement by elected officials in the day-to-day operations of the City government which is a departure from the Council-Manager form of government.

Over the course of my career, the highs have far outweighed the lows. Departing now is bittersweet. I will miss working with dedicated fellow employees and residents to make Falls Church an even greater place to live, work, and visit. I will continue to enjoy the special events, excellent water service, delectable Farmers Market and the Library, but I will not be participating in 4 a.m. snow calls or budget Town Hall meetings! (But I may occasionally watch the Council on FCCTV or my laptop!)

And finally, I have appreciated the support of the City Manager, the Leadership Team and others who recognize the critical role that communications plays in effective government. “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will,” said Thomas Jefferson.




Barbara Gordon is the Communications Director of the City of Falls Church.