By James Day
Silverton will have four new councilors beginning in January. Eric Hammond, April Newton and Marie Traeger were elected to four-year terms in a seven-candidate field on Nov. 8 to replace retiring councilors Jim Sears, Dana Smith and Crystal Neideigh. In addition, current council president Jason Freilinger was elected to a two-year term as mayor, and one of the first orders of business in January will be to fill Freilinger’s council seat.
Our Town conducted email interviews with the councilors-elect, and communication rose to the top of issues the trio felt that the city, its residents and its councilors will need to address. Communication about what the city is doing and why. Communication about how residents can get involved.
“I think we have a communication problem in Silverton,” said Hammond, a horticulturist and member of Sustainable Silverton. “It might be society wide, but we can only work locally. Communication toward the council and outward from the city are both only catching a very few, very engaged people. That isn’t good for our civic order, or governance, our social life, families, or I guess now my own personal time. How do we fix that?”
Traeger, a corrections counselor with the state and former longtime Silver Falls School District teacher, said “we need to branch out with how we disseminate information. Using platforms such as Facebook only reaches a small demographic. We need to use other means such as Instagram and Twitter, for example, to reach the younger population.”
Newton, a retired rural mail carrier who volunteers with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and the school district, comes to the council with experience on the city’s budget committee.
“I think the biggest challenge is communicating effectively, why the city makes some of the decisions they do. Getting the public to understand the nuanced reasons behind decisions and not just sound bites is challenging,” Newton said. “People don’t have a lot of time to follow why city staff and city government makes each decision. A good council will put the time into helping the public understand the reasons behind decision making.”
The current “hybrid” meeting structure in which some councilors, visitors and staff participate via Zoom while others are present either at the council chambers on South Water Street or in the Silverton High library also was viewed as part of the communications issue.
“I believe a couple of challenges facing the current council is lack of community attendance at meetings and the hybrid meeting format,” Traeger said.
“I believe if more community members attended the council meetings, there would be a broader understanding of the City Council’s role and better opportunity for vital community feedback. The second challenge deals with hybrid meetings. I believe having all members in the same room is important for collaboration and communication.”
Communication also plays a role with other city issues, Newton said.
“Growth and misperceptions about what control the council has in order to deal with it is one of the biggest challenges,” she said. “Everyone is rightly concerned about fast growth and the consequences of not being prepared with our infrastructure and our schools in particular. But the public perception that city council can just stop growth is wrong and pits council against the public.
“It would benefit everyone if we had a comprehensive understanding of what power the city council actually has in dealing with zoning issues and new developments. I think people are gaining a better understanding and this is where clear communication really comes into play.”
Hammond said that “the city, city government and the councilors need better communication tool(s), and very rapidly deployed in 2023. Maybe the new (larger) water bill could serve on the reverse side as a message board from the city? Maybe the city needs to budget for a communications position, someone tasked with getting information out to the citizens in a timely fashion. Maybe the city website needs an upgrade with better updates. Maybe some citizen in town is a communications expert and wants to be super helpful? Our town is built on volunteerism.
“NOBODY comes to the meetings and nobody in town has any idea what the council does. The councilors don’t get much engagement. That’s a potential problem, or at least an opportunity (to build) a better town.”