February 14, 2020

Citizen Questions-Learn about Murray’s Community Liaison Program

Read more articles in the latest issue of Kentucky City magazine.   
Cities interested in learning more about the program are welcome to contact Murray City Administrator Jim Osborne.

“It’s not often that a sanitation or public works guy hears a thank you, but they are now. It’s as important to give our employees positive feedback as it is our citizens.” — Mayor Bob Rogers

The City of Murray is big on customer service. So much so, it now has a community liaison program focused on responding to questions and concerns from the public (not just residents) and trying to help. Most inquiries are what you’d expect, requests for some type of help or pothole complaints, but sometimes, they are far more interesting.

The liaison program is a next step in the city’s ongoing intention to make city interactions good ones. The city has a Customer Service Center (CSC), located on the first floor of city hall, where citizens can take care of several types of transactions, including paying for utilities, property taxes and business licenses and conducting fire inspections. The “one stop shopping” concept applies in person as well as online with the city’s citizen-centric website.

The idea for the community liaison program started last year, during Mayor Bob Rogers’ mayoral campaign. He realized there was a perception that city government wasn’t listening. “My goal was to make sure people knew that we were listening to concerns and also to ideas,” said Mayor Rogers, who was elected and took office in January 2019. “Not only do we want feedback from people, but we want them to know that they have a role to play in our city.”

Rogers’ philosophy plays a big part in the team approach. A former educator and retired school superintendent of 26 years, Mayor Rogers, like most mayors, sees his own role as a bridge builder with county government, state government, Murray State University, city employees and the public. He knew of paid ombudsman programs in other cities and thought a local volunteer corps could work.

“After all, we were voted the friendliest small town in America,” said Gayle Rogers, the mayor’s wife, a retired court reporter who currently teaches yoga when she’s not managing the community liaison program. “That matters to us.” (The city was named “the friendliest” by a Rand McNally USA
Today poll in 2012.)

The mayor talked with City Administrator Jim Osborne about the idea after he won the election. By the time he was sworn in, Osborne had identified office space (a converted coat closet off the city hall lobby) and worked with Ms. Rogers to develop basic protocols and training for volunteers.  While Osborne had done some lead-up work, the real first step was discussing the idea with city department heads. The response from them was immediately positive. Osborne said the volunteers can answer a lot of questions a department head would typically take time to answer. Simple things like where to drop off special recycling items or when tree limbs will be picked up after a storm.

The city’s IT team set up a phone line (270-761-CITY) and added a portal to the city’s website.  

With the program ready to launch in January, Osborne worked with Ms. Rogers on the team of volunteers. “The most important qualification is people skills,” she said, “and the understanding that the process is confidential.”

Ms. Rogers created an intake log to be used with all contacts, whether they be in person, by phone or by email. The log includes when the inquiry came in, who responded, how it was referred, if and when there was a follow-up phone call and any other specific notes. Osborne provides the liaison team with a list of community events, a calendar of things like street closures and up-to-date general city information. The service is an extension of information the city
posts on its website and social platforms with something extra — a personal touch.

Cheryl Crouch, a speech pathologist and volunteer for the program said, “I think people are shocked that we spend as much time as we do to help them. Shocked, but in a good way.” Some inquiries aren’t related to city matters at all. She recalled an unusual call from a man in Indiana who was trying to find back copies of Montage magazine, which was once printed in Murray. She called the library and a bookstore and wound up finding someone who had back copies. When she called the man back, he was pleasantly surprised she’d found the magazine and even more surprised that she took the time to help someone who
didn’t live in Murray.

Another unique call came from a gentleman in Anchorage, Alaska, who had lost his best friend. The decedent had no immediate family, but his friend knew he was from Murray. He knew the first name of one of the man’s cousins and that was it. Ms. Rogers, who took the call, began to reach out and, by process of elimination, realized the man’s cousin was a personal friend of hers. Ms. Rogers said it was an amazing feeling to be able to help someone in such a meaningful way.

Osborne said the concept is working. He said the volunteer training was the biggest learning curve. “They are not city employees and don’t represent the city. They are volunteers.” That’s beneficial because it takes away liability. The volunteers do the intake, answer what they can and refer
everything else to city employees. Inquiries are confidential. Going back to the original intent of the program, the volunteers listen, often for a while, to whatever
the caller wants to discuss, with the exception of complaints about city employees. Those conversations are cut off, and the caller is referred as needed to the appropriate supervisor. That way the employee and the volunteer are protected.

The training and establishment of the protocol took some time on the front end. Osborne, a former assistant police chief, worked with City Clerk Dannetta Clayton to provide several likely questions and possible scenarios the volunteers might encounter. Volunteers know who in the city to contact about sanitation, code enforcement, drainage issues, etc. Issues without a clear contact go to Osborne. While the hours for the liaison program are Monday-Friday 9:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. the phone line rolls over to Rogers after hours and on weekends. The 24/7 access makes a big impact.

Ms. Rogers reflected on a call from a realtor on a very hot Saturday afternoon. A father with four small children had just driven into town from California, and the water had not been turned on in their new home. The realtor called the phone line, Ms. Rogers called Osborne, he got utilities staff to the house, and the family had water within a short time. Ms. Rogers said, “He had a good first impression of our city.”

Volunteers often do follow-ups on inquiries. And, they make an intentional effort to contact city departments when they get positive feedback. “It’s not often that a sanitation or public works guy hears a thank you, but they are now,” said the mayor. “It’s as important to give our employees positive feedback as it is our citizens.” Osborne said one of the best things about the program is that it costs nothing to operate. “People are sensitive about not being listened to, but they are also sensitive about how you spend their money, so we emphasize the word ‘volunteer’ for this program.”

Ms. Rogers, as the unpaid manager of the program, creates quarterly reports for Osborne and Mayor Rogers.

Murray resident Anne Adams is part of the volunteer team. She is a retired educator and the city’s retired director of tourism. “My selfish reason in doing this has to do with me getting reconnected in the community. But then my selfless reason is that I want to be an ambassador because I love this city.”

“Sometimes people just want to be heard,” she said.

She recalled with humor a caller who was frustrated that his trash had not been picked up. During the conversation, Adams learned that the caller had stuck a broom in the trash, keeping the receptacle from closing. She advised him to break the broomstick in half and try it again next week.

When she did a follow-up call, she learned the trash had been picked up. “He was very pleased that we had solved his problem together,” she said.

When the program launched in January 2019, the city did local media about the program with newspapers and radio. They promoted it on social media, the city website and with specific outreach to business groups, realtors, schools and community groups. The word spread organically.

Both the mayor and Osborne agree that the success of the program is the people involved and the importance of having a strong point person. They advise a city looking into a similar program to do the work on the front end and have buy-in from city departments.

“People see nothing getting done at other levels of government with the constant bickering and polarization. We wanted to send a message that you really can get things done when people work together,” said Mayor Rogers.

After a year with the program, he’s pleased.

“I want people to be proud that they live in Murray, and I want our employees to be proud they work for the City of Murray. We have great people working here, and we want to try to build on that every day.”