As the Stillwater City Council looks for ways to move the city forward, this particular group of councilors is putting a special emphasis on strategic planning.

It’s a way to keep them from getting too caught up in the day-to-day to see the big picture and to ensure that city resources are spent wisely and advance identified goals.

The City of Stillwater operates under a council-manager system in which the City Council provides direction, sets policy, passes ordinances and approves the city budget while the City Manager serves as the executive responsible for day-to-day operations of the city.

Only three city employees, the City Manager, City Attorney and Municipal Judge answer directly to the City Council.

At their meeting on Monday, the councilors reviewed a five-year, rolling strategic plan for years 2019-2023 that is designed to serve as a road map for the city as it moves into the future.

The City Council previously identified six strategic priorities that are meant to guide what the city does.

1. Effective services and accountable government through fiscal responsibility, transparency and customer service

2. Inspired management through demonstrated leadership, management and planning to create a better community

3. A safe community through enhanced relationships, responsiveness and customer service

4. A strong sense of place that interconnects people, buildings and public systems to serve the needs of the public

5. Developing partnerships that create a high quality of life with equality of access to services and amenities, strong and connected neighborhoods, and a healthy economy and business atmosphere that align with community values

6. Civic engagement to encourage participation and understanding of government through outreach initiatives that inspire trust and confidence in local government.

Following each strategic priority, the Council generated several objectives stemming from that priority. For example, they listed preservation of livability in Stillwater’s strong and distinctive neighborhoods as an objective that contributes to quality of life, a strategic priority.

City staff then developed a list of specific strategies for accomplishing each objective, along with examples of specific performance measures that could be used to gauge success.

The councilors reviewed the strategic plan, suggesting additions or changes to the strategies and often asking for the suggested performance metrics to be more specific or more concrete.

Several councilors said they see a need for more emphasis on planning ahead and gathering input to ensure their ideas match what the community wants.

“I’m anxious for something that gets us out ahead of issues before they become issues,” Vice-mayor Pat Darlington said. “We sort of react week to week. How do we get ahead of our own selves?”

Councilor Amy Dzialowski agreed that taking a forward-thinking, “eye on the horizon” view is what the council is supposed to do.

But Councilor Alane Zannotti warned against getting too far ahead without gathering input from residents. She said it’s fine for the council to do all this forward visioning but it might not work out well if it’s not in sync with the community or the vision isn’t being communicated to the community.

Director of Marketing and Public Relations Sherry Fletcher explained what her department has been doing to increase civic engagement, one of the strategic priorities.

The city has launched new tools like an online polling platform called FlashVote to find out how residents feel about issues facing the city. About 450 people have signed up but it will take at least 700 people to provide a good representative sample, based on the city’s population, Fletcher said.

People who live outside the city limits can also register. Fletcher said there could sometimes be questions about issues affecting people who live near Stillwater or who regularly come to Stillwater for work or other reasons.

The City has also begun offering public access through its website to apps like Balancing Act, which gives people the opportunity to try to balance the city budget while tailoring it to their priorities and Taxpayer Receipt, which allows people to estimate how much sales tax they pay and then shows them how much they contributed to supporting city services and programs.

The City’s marketing and public relations staff has launched a podcast to make detailed information about specific topics available when and where residents have time to listen to it. They have also begun bringing Pop Up City Hall to community events where people are gathered so residents have more opportunity to register for tools like Flash Vote and to present their questions and concerns to city staff.

The City also commissioned a Citizen Satisfaction Survey in 2017 to determine how residents perceived various aspects of city government and services. The full survey will likely be repeated every five years with periodic updates on specific topic using tools like Flash Vote.

During the 2017 survey, residents reported the lowest satisfaction with understanding the city’s budget, Fletcher said.

The City has begun its annual budgeting process and must have an adopted budget before fiscal year 2018-2019 ends on June 30.

City Manager Norman McNickle said he and Deputy City Manager/CFO Melissa Reames have been speaking with civic groups to explain how much the city has, where it comes from and where that money goes.

The city budget, which totals about $120 million, is under development and more presentations will be made in open meeting before the budget is adopted.

Twitter: @mcharlesNP

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