Revelstokians have until Mar. 12 to provide feedback on the draft budget. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

‘Can’t imagine not having one’: municipalities weigh in on communications officer debate

Most municipalities in B.C. have a communications officer or team

To have a communications officer, or not to have a communications officer: that is the question.

The 2019 City of Revelstoke draft budget calls for the new position and pegs the cost at more than $100,000—a price some deem too high.

“Given everything else asked, I don’t think it’s a priority,” said Coun. Steven Cross. He voted against it being in the budget, along with councilors Jackie Rhind and Cody Younker.

Steven Cross. (File)

The budget includes a 4.5 per cent property tax hike overall, of which 0.9 per cent would help pay for a communications officer. On top of was a 10 per cent increase on water, sewer and garbage rates earlier this year.

READ MORE: Community Guide to Revelstoke’s draft budget now available

“In a year of tax increases, this is not the time to ask for a communications officer,” said Cross.

Communications elsewhere

Roughly 15 years ago, the Town of Canmore hired a communications officer. At the time, the debate was similar on whether the cost was worth it.

“But, the job is essential,” said Robyn Dinnadge, communications manager for Town of Canmore.

It can be effective during a time of crisis, such as the 2013 flood that devastated Canmore. That flood cost $1.72 billion in damages, was the second-costliest disaster in Canada after the Fort McMurray fire and forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 people.

“There needs to be someone in the background getting information to residents,” said Dinnadge.

Revelstoke does not currently have a crisis communication plan.

During the Canmore flood, the city’s communications team kept the public up to date with information regarding damages, road closures and what the city was doing to help.

“In this day and age, I can’t imagine not having one,” said Dinnadge.

According to Jan Enns, a local government communications planner, the job is an invaluable part of democracy by helping to explain to the public why something needs to be done and why it matters.

“It undermines the democratic process if people don’t know what’s going on,” said Enns.

If there isn’t a communications officer the job gets done “on the side of someone’s desk.” As a result, things can be missed.

Ron Mattiussi was chief administrative officer for the City of Kelowna from 2006 to 2018 and during that time created the city’s communications department.

Mattiussi said if done right, a communications officer is like an auditor and guardian of transparency.

“They protect the public’s right to know.”

While it’s beneficial to have councilors post on Facebook about city meetings, Mattiussi said that isn’t enough.

“They’re posts from that one councillor, not from council,” said Mattiussi.

It’s important to have a department that puts forth information and messaging from council as a whole.

“Otherwise, the public may be getting a politicized version of council,” he added.

Communications officers aren’t cheap. The manager of communications for Kelowna made $91,989 in 2017, the one for Whistler made $123,800, and the director of corporate communications for Vancouver made $168,609.

While the position is budgeted in Revelstoke for $103,250, that includes benefits. The salary would be $73,000, which according to the city is on-par with similar sized municipalities.

Communications officer wages in B.C.
Infogram

Although Castlegar doesn’t have a communications officer, there is one proposed in their budget.

“It was a request during the election period,” said Chris Barlow, chief administration officer for Castlegar. However, it’s unknown how much the position will cost the city.

Another municipality without a communications officer is Salmon Arm, which has roughly twice the population of Revelstoke. There, the job falls under the administration department, who said “the current system works well”, but wouldn’t elaborate. Salmon Arm has no plans to hire a communications officer.

Revelstoke

Communications in Revelstoke is undertaken by Dawn Low, director of corporate administration. Corporate administration is also responsible for legal work and bylaw enforcement.

“Right now, communications is being done by the side of our desk,” said Low. The job is not a priority and since the city is growing into a destination resort, Low said the current model of communications in Revelstoke isn’t sustainable.

Low said hiring someone will save the city money as staff will spend less time later fixing problems.

“For an hour of communications planning, you save six to ten hours of crisis management later,” Low said.

One result from not having a communications officer said Low was the failure of not getting the new development cost charges bylaw passed last summer. The purpose of that bylaw was to increase costs to developers to pay for new infrastructure from an increasing population, instead of that burden falling only on taxpayers.

The city was not effective, said Low, in explaining to the public why the bylaw was important.

READ MORE: Revelstoke City Council defeats proposed Development Cost Charge Bylaw

However, Cross said the ultimate reason the bylaw didn’t pass was a failure of leadership and anger with permit delays. Even with a communications officer, it might still not have passed.

In the end, Cross said it isn’t a bad idea having a communications officer, he just doesn’t think enough alternatives have been examined beforehand in a year of substantial tax increases.

Other alternatives could include better coordination with the Chamber of Commerce and local media. Work on the city’s website could be contracted out, most likely for a cheaper cost said Cross than hiring a communications officer.

While city staff does an excellent job, Cross said, the city needs to improve departmental organization and leadership roles before hiring more staff. It’s possible a communications officer might help the city more than its people.

“It’s not the city that needs representing, it’s the citizens.”

Revelstokians have until Mar. 12 to provide feedback on the draft budget.


 

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liamm.harrap@revelstokereview.com

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