Aspen to add high-level communicator to rectify breakdowns with public
Dealing with a series of missteps in communicating with the public this past year, the city of Aspen is adding a new position of communications director to its management team.
Council signed off on the position earlier this month during a work session on the 2019 budget. The annual salary is $112,000. The city has budgeted $158,430 for the entire cost of the position.
Assistant City Manager Sara Ott said last week that she is working on a job description and will likely post the position during the first quarter of 2019.
She and city management did a yearlong analysis on what the communications needs are within the organization and determined it falls short on staffing.
Ott said the need for a high-level communicator goes beyond the city’s lack of communication with the public on numerous initiatives this past year, which Aspen City Council has acknowledged is a problem.
The city has a community relations director, Mitzi Rapkin, who has had the job since 2011. Her compensation package is $94,578.
“Currently we have one staff person for the entire organization trying to support 20 departments,” Ott told council, adding that the city needs more manpower for strategic communications.
City Manager Steve Barwick said the new position will reduce or eliminate the need to hire outside consultants to handle public relations on capital projects, and alleviate staff members from having to serve as spokespeople.
He cited construction on the Castle Creek Bridge as an example in which $55,000 has been spent on an outside public relations firm to help educate the public on the project, and city engineers are spending their time communicating with the community instead of focusing on their jobs.
“The ongoing bridge project right now is a classic example,” he told council at its Oct. 1 work session. “Our communications plan right now mostly falls upon the engineering staff to get out there and do the communications part of it and it’s not necessarily in their skill wheelhouse.”
Councilman Ward Hauenstein said a communications director makes sense.
“We tried all kinds of ways to communicate and engage the community and I think this hopefully is a real positive step in that direction towards informing and engaging the community,” he said. “To expect some gear head to be experts in communications is not realistic.”
Rapkin will report to the communications director. Her current job description says her duties include handling public and media relations, as well as special projects and being a community liaison for the city.
This year, Rapkin was in charge of designing and implementing the city’s new website, and was the project manager for the branding and new logo for the municipal government. She also assists on several top 10 goals of council.
As described in the supplemental budget request, the new communications director will be “responsible for direct, high-level communication and engagement oversight towards the goals, vision and values of the organization.”
The communications director also will handle campaign planning, crisis communication and in-depth public education efforts, among many other tasks outlined in the request.
“Additionally, the role would lead media relations and stakeholder relations with key community partners; provide assistance in communicating complex and technical matters to audience groups, particularly if the matters are a source of community strife,” according to the supplemental budget request. “This position is being proposed in response to City Council’s and the community’s request for more ongoing community engagement.”
Council members said at their annual retreat this past summer that the city has done a poor job conveying its initiatives and, as a result, has gotten pushback on a number of issues.
Council members have taken heat on everything from proposed bike lanes on Hopkins Avenue to planned city offices near Rio Grande Park; the ongoing Castle Creek Bridge project; the $51,000 spent on the city’s logo; increased parking fees downtown; a $2.5 million mobility lab aimed at reducing hundreds of cars from coming into town; the new sign in front of the police station; and elected officials’ lack of communication with other boards governing the county and the housing program, among other criticisms.
The communications director is one of 11 new positions being added to the city’s budget for 2019.
Councilwoman Ann Mullins said she anticipates getting pushback from the public about government growth but the communications director is a direct result of a community request for better communications.
Barwick said it’s not just getting information to people but having a point person in the city “involved in discussions related to important topics” with the community.
“I think the trend in the industry includes a large portion of human-to-human communications as part of this,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the annual salary for the position is $112,000.
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Aspen School District’s younger students will return to class next week, but that’s not the case for those in the seventh through 12th grade, who will continue to take courses from home.