Arlington’s city government sports a robust online and social media presence, but elected officials should consider rebuilding trust in the communities they serve, candidates and experts said.
Dr. Barbara Odom-Wesley, incumbent District 8 council member, said she encounters people with little idea of local developments — most recently, she has found people who were unaware that the city’s rideshare program, Via, expanded citywide. During her first term on council, she has used in-person and telephone town halls and sent quarterly newsletters. However, Odom-Wesley represents the entire city in her at-large seat, so reaching all of her constituents is a tall order.
“I know that’s something I hear candidates saying out campaigning that we don’t communicate, they don’t know what’s going on with council, but I think that’s not for lack of trying,” Odom-Wesley said. “We have to continue to try everything, every technique.”
Disconnect with municipal government is not unique to Arlington. Many, if not all, agencies must contend with low trust of all forms of government, especially now, said Ashley English, TCU assistant strategic communication professor.
“That means elected officials need to climb a steeper hill with not only providing information, but recognizing that you’re speaking into a space that may be low trust,” English said.
A 2019 Pew Research study of U.S. resident distrust in federal government suggests transparency and communication efforts by local officials could go a long way toward rebuilding trust at all levels of government.
People with less formal education and lower incomes, as well as those ages 18 to 29 and people of color, generally have less trust in government, English said. Officials representing communities where trust is low should emphasize listening events and follow up on resident concerns with research, if not action, she added.
“Those low-trust areas need higher engagement that’s not social media restrictive,” English said. “We have to think about, in those spaces, dedicating time to being physically present in those communities where there may be some issues with low trust.”
The city’s communication department has earned numerous accolades from communication industry groups, as well as a Lone Star Emmy, for content available on Arlington’s website and social media pages. Jay Warren, communication and legislative affairs director, told industry publication GovTech in 2019 that officials must put out more information in a city where local news coverage has exponentially diminished.
Council members are instrumental in relaying information to constituents, Warren said in a phone interview.
“They’re a great way to amplify the message that the city is putting out there,” Warren said.
Pastor, teacher and District 4 council candidate Billy McClendon said people of color tend to miss out on messages at all levels of government.
“It’s already engrained in the minds of people who are not in the process to not trust,” McClendon said. “You see it in police work, you see it all over different kind of swaths of government in the city.”
Council and mayoral candidates who spoke to the Star-Telegram were eager to return to public events as COVID case numbers fall and vaccination rates rise.
When mayoral candidate and District 3 council member Marvin Sutton gets an email from his constituents or voters, he likes to follow up over the phone or in person. Recently, Sutton surprised a business owner at his establishment after he reached out.
Sutton said the term limits voters approved in 2018 reflected voter dissatisfaction of council’s performance, as well as the importance of relationship building.
“We have to break down those physical barriers,” he said. “I hope to do that and rebuild trust in local government and reconnect citizens to city hall.”
Chris Dobson, District 8 council candidate, said distrust stems from council’s reliance on the same people and businesses for input. Additionally, he said, responsiveness of previous council members, or a reluctance to take on constituent concerns, has turned people off from officeholders.
The council’s structure of five single-member districts and three at-large positions creates difficulty in covering all corners.
“Anyone would acknowledge that it’s a difficult task to listen to that many people,” Dobson said..
Dora Tovar, District 3 council candidate, said some of her constituents feel they are only contacted during election seasons — especially when big-ticket proposals such as funding for Globe Life Field and AT&T Stadium are on the docket.
“A lot of residents have told me, ‘No one seems to care about what we think now that they’ve built their first-class sporting facilities,’” she said.
There’s a feeling among some in District 3, which covers Arlington’s rapidly growing and diverse southeast region, that residents have been forgotten, said council candidate Nikkie Hunter. If officials are to improve communication, they must address those who feel ignored.
“The only way we are going to know what is going on is if we open up communication and see what those issues are,” Hunter said.
Candidates’ methods to engage residents have been just as diverse as the 22 people who filed to run for office in Arlington.
Doni Anthony said if elected mayor, she would consider software for centralized notifications, information sharing and feedback from residents on all issues. She would also maintain and leverage her Twitter presence, where she has over 40,000 followers.
“Regardless of if I agree with you or not or you’re mad at me, I’m here to represent everybody,” Anthony said.
Win or lose, Ross said he will keep producing his YouTube and podcast series, The Arlington Experience, in which he interviews local business owners about their livelihoods.
Candidates said they wish to speak directly with residents wherever they are most comfortable.
“The more we can get it in front of people in environments that they’re comfortable with, the better I think we’ll be able to relate to them what’s going on in the city and what kinds of support, input and information we may need from the public so we can continue make decisions that are beneficial to everyone,” said mayoral candidate Michael Glaspie.
Sutton suggested visiting with people at community centers such as the newly renovated East Library and Recreation Center. Ross, Hunter, Odom-Wesley, McClendon and Dobson said they would continue town halls and listening sessions.
Both Dobson and mayoral candidate Dewayne Washington said they would like to repurpose the AskArlington app, a service where residents can report code compliance issues, for better two-way communication with residents.
“The foundation for even creating the app was there, someone had the wherewithal to do that, but I also tell that the app is not properly supported,” Washington said.
Rebecca Boxall, who is running for District 5 City Council, said she would like to see the city help communities form neighborhood groups and cultivate local leaders. Empowering neighborhood leadership, she said, can empower those who may not feel comfortable speaking up at an event or public meeting.
“It could be a bottom-up approach, where people go to their neighborhood associations or neighborhood leader,” Boxall said.
Alixis Lupien, District 5 candidate, said the city should consider mailing out newsletters.
“There are just so many ways that we can get information out there,” she said.