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Special Districts Program 2020: Year-in-Review Summit

Our Year-in-Review Summit showcased how some of the nation’s most innovative and effective special districts responded to COVID-19.

Our Year-in-Review Summit showcased how some of the nation’s most innovative and effective special districts responded to COVID-19. The 2020 Special Districts Innovation Award Program received more than 200 nominations – all focused on technology deployments and leadership related to pandemic response and recovery efforts. This virtual event congratulates the winners and presents some of the best ideas we received through the annual award program.

Key Takeaways

More than 100 special district leaders joined the live virtual summit on Dec. 15, which featured Innovation Award Winners who transformed internal operations, virtualized citizen services and led their teams through unprecedented disruption in response to the pandemic. These special district leaders joined experts from AT&T and Government Technology to explore insights and lessons learned from the experience.

Here are some highlights:

  • The Orange County Water District (OCWD) – winner of a citizen service award in our Western Region – rapidly adopted new forms of digital outreach to engage citizens during the pandemic. Efforts included a new COVID-19 information center on the district’s website stocked with fact sheets and videos highlighting the safety and reliability of local drinking water, as well as new resources for media outlets.

    “The first and most important component of our outreach was to clearly and quickly convey that COVID-19 does not impact the quality or supply of drinking water,” said Vicente Sarmiento, board president for OCWD.

    The district also implemented virtual versions of typically live events, including board and committee meetings, community planning sessions and even tours of OCWD’s Ground Water Replenishment System, the world’s largest wastewater purification facility.
  • The City of El Paso Housing Authority – winner of an operations award in our Southwest Region -- reconfigured physical offices to provide touchless services to residents applying for housing assistance. Massive new monitors and two-way video connections installed in the authority’s headquarters enabled remote receptionists to direct clients to private stations where they could work with staff via video to fill out application forms and upload documents.

    Although residents also could perform these tasks online, the authority needed options for applicants who required more help completing lengthy forms and submitting supporting material, says Gerald Cichon, the authority’s CEO. “Even though we could run 100 percent remote, we still had to up our game and make sure no one fell through the cracks.”

    Cichon added the authority’s shift toward virtual work and service delivery will reduce its physical footprint. “We’ve realized that this 100,000 square-foot building is no longer necessary,” he says. “Our plan now is to move into something about one-tenth the size and still run at 100 percent efficiency.”
  • The Meridian Library District in Idaho – winner of a leadership award in our Western District -- launched free home delivery of library materials when a statewide pandemic shutdown order closed library branches in March. After five months of offering the service, the library has delivered more than 7,000 items to nearly 1,600 patrons.

    “Our patrons could not come to us, so I wondered if we could perhaps bring the library to them,” says Library Director Gretchen Caserotti. “We own vehicles that we use for outreach to assisted living facilities, childcare centers and community events. Why not repurpose them to deliver materials to our residents’ doorsteps?”

Caserotti says the delivery service will continue after the pandemic subsides, helping the library serve the expanding population of Meridian, one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. “Building enough libraries to keep up with our growth is not possible,” she says.

Gretchen Caserotti, Library Director, Meridian Library District

Gerald Cichon, CEO, Housing Authority of El Paso

Michael Harrod, Principal Architect, Shared Solutions, AT&T

Bruce J. Moeller, PhD, former Chief of Staff and Assistant County Administrator, Pinellas County

Vicente Sarmiento, Board President, Orange County Water District

Tom Steegmann, Principal Architect, Public Sector Solutions, AT&T

Dustin Haisler, Moderator, Chief Innovation Officer, Government Technology

Click here to access the slides presented during the summit.