Grand Forks Public Information Center links city government to citizens
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Many questions directed to the Grand Forks Public Information Center revolve around taxes, permits and garbage collection — others, not so much.
“I once had a lady call and ask ‘How do you freeze corn?’ “ communication specialist Sharyl Simeone said. “I didn’t know the answer, but I told her I would find it.”
After a quick search for a phone number, Simeone put the woman in touch with North Dakota State University Extension Service staff who could answer her question.
Kevin Dean, the center’s information officer, said Simeone’s approach to that unusual question was representative of the office’s philosophy.
“We try to do everything we can short of saying ‘I don’t know,’ “ he said.
The center has received praise recently from critics of the Grand Forks School Board’s budgeting process who pointed to the city as a model for government transparency.
Answering questions and posting the city’s financial information for the public to view is just one part of the information center staff’s job — a job that has been changing since the city created the center shortly after the 1997 flood.
At that time, the center was the place to go for residents to fill out paperwork for voluntary home buyouts.
Now, the duties of Dean, Simeone and communication specialist John Bernstrom include maintaining the city website, broadcasting and recording city meetings and helping organizers get permits for the more than 400 special events occurring annually in the city.
Despite its small size, the center staff likes to think of itself as a trendsetter when it comes to creating a more transparent government.
As new types of technology emerge, Dean said trends are changing faster than ever.
While the center still sends out information to traditional media sources, the staff also has had to adjust to using social media in an effort to make city information accessible to a wider range of people.
One of its most recent initiatives was changing the center’s phone number from 746-INFO to 311 — a number that can be easily dialed on smartphones and other devices that no longer have numbers and letters on the same button.
The next big project for the staff is revamping the city’s website.
Before it starts constructing the site, the center is conducting surveys to gather feedback on the existing website and what residents want in the future.
For example, a mobile application for phones and devices could be created if that’s something residents request, Simeone added.
Finding the best way to get information — whether it’s emergency notices or where the leaf vacuum is that day — out to residents can be tricky but is necessary for the center to help keep residents informed, according to its staff.
They say being open with residents is key to altering the negative stereotype that surrounds government at any level.
“It’s very easy to get frustrated with government, and it’s very easy to hate government,” Dean said. “We want to change that image.”