By Beth Bily
For the last year, Itasca County officials have been on a mission – to increase the level of government transparency and increase opportunity for citizen engagement.
“We’re trying to increase our transparency to the public,” said Itasca County Administrator Trish Klein, who’s held the county’s top administrative post for two and one-half years. “The historical model has been for the people to come to us – but there’s been a shift in (public) expectations.”
County commissioners are elected by district, but once elected, they are legally bound to serve all the residents of the county. With the third largest geography in the state, representing all its citizens poses particular challenge here.
To bridge the gap, commissioners have engaged in coffee with the county - informal sessions between commissioners and constituents; off-site board meetings in locations such as Nashwauk, Bigfork and Deer River; and even social media efforts – such as an Itasca County Facebook page.
In addition to connecting commissioners with constituents, the efforts, said Klein, connect county employees to the public.
“We want to get the faces of county employees out to the public, so they know who we are,” said Klein.
The first outreach efforts began about one year ago – shortly after the general election. Newly elected commissioner Terry Snyder hosted the first coffee with the county in Marcell. Now, coffee with county events take place at the request of townships. The first off-site county board meeting took place in April of this year.
The effort is ongoing, with more waiting in the wings.
The plan is to “expand our outreach efforts even more,” said Klein.
The county administrator noted that officials hope to expand through videotaping coffee with the county events as well as the possible launch of a county Q&A program via local access television.
While televising events is one approach to giving citizens more access to information, officials also plan to utilize methods of communication on a more personal level.
“I think we would like to do an electronic newsletter,” said Klein.
Short videos, which could be made available on the county’s website, also are part of long-range communications thinking. And, not long ago, the county launched a Facebook page, which includes photos and information about county events.
The county Facebook page has 556 “likes” or people who follow its online posts. But, the number is expected to grow as citizens increasingly get information from social media outlets.
Reaching out, via the Internet, has gained momentum in the public sector. It’s a communication avenue effectively used by many younger politicians such as Duluth Mayor Don Ness and state Rep. Carly Melin of Hibbing. Both frequently post about events they attended or political causes they promote through social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. Both also have substantial social media following.
Collectively, the outreach efforts allow commissioners and county staff to customize and personalize the approach to governing.
“Each township and district has different needs,” said Klein. “In Bovey, they’re concerned about economic development. In Carpenter Township, they’re concerned about connectivity and emergency services,” said Klein. “We’re really open to ideas. We want to hear what the public wants so we can meet their needs.”