Can you relate?

In an era when governments are often criticized for being too secretive or unresponsive, it can be quite a surprise to discover the myriad ways Asheville city government seeks to keep the flow of information open.

In fact, the city’s Community Relations division puts customer service at the top of its list, according to staffers.

During a recent session of the Asheville Citizen’s Academy, Public Information Officer Laurie Saxton explained that the customers in this case are not just the local media but, more and more, the average citizen. For instance, her office now fulfills more information and records requests from rank-and-file residents than from the media, she said. And, in most cases, requests typically are processed free or at little charge, she added.

In addition, she said, the office still churns out more than 300 media-targeted press releases a year. The reason is simple: “We need each other and benefit from each other,” she said.

But because the media isn’t always able to tell the whole story of city government, the office has created several outlets to fill the breach. There is the city’s Web site (www.ashevillenc.gov) and an official e-newsletter; then there’s the Asheville Channel (Charter Cable 11), overseen by Jeff Reble, which runs 24/7 with news and public-service announcements and airs City Council meetings live. The city also recently launched its own TV news magazine, Asheville City Works, which, Reble said, airs six to 10 new stories on city programs each month.

The office also makes a point of reaching people directly, either through various mailers that include questionnaires and advertisements, not to mention community meetings on various topics. A key resource within the office is Neighborhood Services Officer Marsha Stickford.

“The city created my position because they realized we are essentially a city of neighborhoods,” she said. As a liaison between the city and neighborhoods, Stickford’s main duties include facilitating service requests and addressing complaints. Whatever the issue in your neighborhood, she said, “Give me a call [at 259-5506], and I’ll give it my best shot.” She can even arrange neighborhood walks with appropriate city staff.

(The academy also heard a presentation on city economic development. Xpress will provide a more in-depth look at that issue in “The Biz,” in an upcoming issue).

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