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City Uses Social Network Live Function to Promote Open Gov

Middletown Mayor Ben Florsheim began reporting from his office in February about items on monthly meeting agendas, making videos within the half-hour before Florsheim heads down to the session in council chambers.

by Cassandra Day, The Middletown Press / March 9, 2020

(TNS) — Two city officials have turned to live social media platforms to expose residents to the workings of local government as a way to ensure transparency as well as encourage engagement.

Middletown, Conn., Mayor Ben Florsheim, 27, began reporting from his office in February about items on the Common Council’s monthly meeting agendas. The videos, between 15-25 minutes in length, are made within the half-hour before Florsheim heads down to the session in council chambers.

The idea originated from his visit a couple of months ago with New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, 32, who took office in her mid-20s.

“She is particularly good at social media, and constituent engagement using new technology and new platforms. This is a great thing for us to do, because I’m very orientated toward opening up city government, and making sure people know what’s going on, and it’s easy for them to find out what’s going on,” Florsheim said.

Monday, he began with the questions to directors meeting, which precedes each monthly council session, letting people know they are open to the public.

His second dispatch March 2 was seen by 2,700 individuals, far surpassing the 794 people who viewed his February video.

“At the end of the day, most people are not going to come to every council meeting, and certainly you’re not going to get 2,700 people,” Florsheim said. “The more feedback we’re getting and the more engagement we’re getting, the better we’re going to be at governing.”

Some municipal leaders who are well-informed about certain issues are in the habit of making decisions within the confines of City Hall.

“In the office, it’s easy to think, ‘I know what’s going on,’ but you forget you’re the only one getting the information,” the mayor said. “People are interested to know even little things.”

This week, Florsheim addressed the Local Capital Improvement Program resolution, which approved $28,000 for a new soundboard at the city-owned Oddfellows Playhouse building. State grants such as these pay for small-scale projects.

It’s important for residents to know which projects their taxes pay for. In this case, no public money was used, the mayor said.

“I didn’t have any familiarity with that program before I started this job. Now, I take for granted it’s one of these pots of money we have for doing projects of that nature. The vast majority of people have no idea what [LoCIP] is,” Florsheim explained.

The council holds quarterly community meetings, an opportunity for residents to speak directly to leaders; however, many are canceled for lack of public attendance. Council Majority Leader Gene Nocera and Minority Leader Phil Pessina are brainstorming ways to move the setting to places in Middletown where people congregate to attract more interest, the mayor said.

He informs the public about things big and small, such as new businesses opening, activities involving the schools and public events, and even shares links to news stories of interest to Middletown.

It’s all part of a recent effort among community leaders to speak directly to constituents and keep them informed.

“I will be the one who tries to put it out there on my Facebook page and Twitter and all those other platforms,” he said. “People don’t know what they don’t know, and if we’re not doing everything in our power to get it out there, we can’t expect a lot of community engagement in the decisions we’re making,” Florsheim said.

In another post, the mayor speaks while a passenger in a car on his way back from a meeting with the state Department of Transportation about the Arrigoni Bridge construction project. It garnered 1,200 views.

When the state issued a press release in mid-February about work soon to begin, it was the first time city officials learned the project was being combined with road work and lane additions at St. John Square.

“The more that we learn, the more we realize this is a responsibility on the city side as well. It hasn’t been a common practice to be talking to each other and the public as well as we should,” Florsheim said.

He cribbed the idea of creating live videos from U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, his former supervisor, who talks to his constituents on social media from his vehicle between events. One of Murphy’s priorities is increasing federal support for mass transit, so when he found himself late for an engagement, he’d record a video talking about just that.

“That’s time to do something simple and catch up on phone calls when you’ve got a lot going on,” Florsheim said.

Common Councilman Ed Ford Jr. has been doing similar live videos on his social media page, calling them Convos With the Councilman. “As your councilman, I’m here for you,” he said.

During his Feb. 10 video, Ford addressed city infrastructure, the Harbor Park boathouse and the city’s Solar for All initiative, among other issues.

“I wanted to update, educate and inform Middletown residents on what we do in local government and keep them [in the know on] issues facing our community. As elected officials, it’s our duty to engage the public as much as possible, and, in the age of social media, I believe it’s a good tool we can use,” Ford said.

Already, he’s received a good deal of positive feedback from residents, as well as suggestions for future videos.

“My overall goal is to educate, inform and engage as many Middletown residents as I can, especially youth. I want people to know what’s going on in town and what their local officials are doing on their behalf,” Ford said.

All city agendas are posted at ahead of each meeting. Many of them stream live in the community videos portion of the site, and can be viewed within days under the archive tabs. Minutes are usually up within a week after each session.

Common Council meetings take place on the first Monday of the month at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 245 deKoven Drive.

©2020 The Middletown Press, Conn. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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