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Ventura Weighs $315,000 to Get the Word Out


A year and a half after axing staff positions and slashing budgets citywide, the Ventura City Council Monday will consider adding two expenditures: $100,000 to launch a new public relations office and $215,000 to install state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment in council chambers.

"I certainly support it," said Councilwoman Rosa Lee Measures. "We need to greatly improve our communication to the public." The public relations effort--which is officially called the Citizen Awareness Program--will help City Hall burnish its image in the community, Measures said.

But one critic questioned why the city was considering spending so much on marketing and video cameras when many city divisions are strapped for cash.

"In general, this is really not the time for local government to be spending money on something that is not absolutely essential to the public," said Mike Saliba, executive director of the Ventura County Taxpayers' Assn.

But Saliba added that communications services, like the public relations effort, are sometimes worth the money because they serve the public's need to know.

That is precisely what officials hope they will accomplish.

Now, Measures explained, city officials mostly rely on the media to broadcast municipal services and accomplishments to residents. Hopefully, she said, a marketing director would propose new opportunities for spreading the city's messages while organizing the current mishmash of press releases.

At the same time, the high-tech video system would beam a slicker image of council meetings into living rooms every Monday night.

Three remote cameras burrowed into the chamber's walls and one monitor to the right of the council dais would record the proceedings from all possible angles, operating on an automated, voice-activated system. Currently, the council meeting is recorded on one video monitor, which an operator swings from speaker to speaker throughout the evening.

The improvements also include replacing the 21-year-old sound system, which periodically breaks down in mid-meeting, leaving puzzled television viewers staring at a silent screen.

The money the city will spend on the equipment and the PR campaign, however, could pay to reconstitute the Police Department's traffic unit, which has lost one-third of its original nine officers due to budget cutbacks.

It could also be a big help to the Finance Department, where Mike Solomon and a co-worker struggle with the work once assigned to five employees.

"Things are backing up, to the point where you just get numb to it," said Solomon, the city's budget and risk manager, surveying stacks of unfiled documents around his desk. "You just do what you can and keep going."

The $100,000 for public relations would come out of the city's recreation fund and would be spread over two years. The bulk of the money--up to $36,000 each year--would pay a coordinator to oversee the entire effort.

Besides issuing bulletins to the media, the coordinator would be responsible for devising new ways to reach residents through such avenues as the public access cable channel and, possibly, a city newsletter.

"It's a step in the right direction," said Mayor Tom Buford. "We're making sure that the city, as an organization, provides people with information about what we're doing."

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