Creative Outreach

By Liz Carmack

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OFFICIALS OFFER INSIGHTS ON HOW TO CONNECT WITH THE PUBLIC

There’s no limit to the ways you can connect with your community through public outreach — from holding commissioners court meetings at high schools, to posting smartphone videos on Facebook, to creating a hashtag that rallies community charitable efforts.

Five officials across the state highlighted these and other creative outreach methods and shared how-to tips with attendees during August’s TAC Legislative Conference in Austin.

Former Ector County Judge and TAC Associate Executive Director and Judicial Education Program Manager Susan Redford moderated the panel discussion session, which closed the annual conference.

FAQ Videos

Lubbock County Justice of the Peace Ann-Marie Carruth 

More than 2 billion people are on Facebook, and 46 percent of them use social media second only to Google as their news source, Lubbock County Justice of the Peace Ann-Marie Carruth told the crowd. Counties should use the platform to reach their constituents and provide them with helpful information.

Carruth uses her smartphone to record short videos that answer the most frequent questions her office gets and posts them to her Facebook feed. 

“We try to post one each month so we can cut down on the number of calls we receive,” she said, and to demystify the county judicial system.

Video topics include: 

  • How to file a petition for eviction
  • Where to park at the courthouse
  • Preparing for a trial
  • Where to get an essential needs license

Carruth added a cautionary note, telling judges they need to be careful when posting on social media. 

“If you’re a judge, there are certain rules and ethical standards (you must follow),” she said. “I don’t engage with people. We post things that are informational, not legal advice.”

This summer, Carruth’s office also staged its first Court Camp. They hosted 18 students for a week-long tour of county government. Many students attending had expressed an interest in becoming attorneys, and by the time they left the camp, they realized the county offers a variety of law-related career opportunities.

“We’ve tried to engage younger people like this … to make sure they’re learning early on the benefit of local government,” she said. 

High School Outreach

Webb County Judge Tano Tijerina

Webb County created a “Shadow the Judge” program, which invites more than a dozen juniors from eight Webb County high schools to spend a day with Webb County Judge Tano Tijerina, tour county offices and meet other officials and staff. 

Students start out “clueless” about county government, Tijerina said. “It’s been an eye opener for most of them.” The students also learn about career opportunities with the county as part of the program. 

The county also takes their work to the students. This year, for the first time, the Webb County Commissioners Court held a public meeting in a packed high school auditorium. 

Tijerina knew the effort it took to hold the meeting at the school was well worth it after a student who attended the meeting later expressed his appreciation to Tijerina and told him how much he learned from the experience.

Tijerina said the county plans to hold two commissioners court meetings in high schools in 2019 — one in each of the county’s independent public school districts — during County Government Month
in April. He said he expects as many as 1,500 students will attend the
two meetings.

#adoptacounty

Glasscock County Judge Kim Halfmann

As Hurricane Harvey pounded the Texas coast in 2017, Glasscock County residents in West Texas approached County Judge Kim Halfmann and asked how they could help. As a result, the hashtag #adoptacounty
was born. 

Halfmann introduced the hashtag on Facebook to focus attention on how counties unaffected by the storm could aid those counties that lay in its path.

“I used social media quite a bit to communicate with our county (residents) to get additional supplies,” she said.

Glasscock County initially sent two semi-trailers full of donated food and supplies to Chambers County after the judge asked Chambers County Clerk Heather Hawthorne what was needed. Halfmann then reached out to Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick with the same question.

“Within five days after Harvey, we had a cooking crew from our county that loaded up half a beef and 600 chickens,” she said. “We sent a crew to Nederland and cooked for 24 hours for volunteers.”

She said they then received a request to feed evacuees who were moving back into their previously flooded neighborhood. She wasn’t sure where they would get the food to help.

“I put a call out on Facebook and made a few calls, and within three hours we had almost 500 pounds of meat donated. We cooked 300 chickens that day and 250 pounds of barbecue to send with them,” Halfmann said. “We served approximately 6,000 meals over a week’s time.”

The #adoptacounty efforts continue, she said, with Glasscock County planning to send a trailer of toys to Chambers County this Christmas.

Halfmann said social media channels should be a county’s go-to during such crises. They’re invaluable to keep your community engaged and ask for help, she said. 

Nextdoor and More

Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody

“Our goal is to give the law enforcement perspective through social media,” said Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody. “It’s important to let the community know what our deputies are doing.”

Chody told attendees he and his deputies use several social media channels to connect with residents, particularly the younger ones they often deal with daily. 

“Each social media platform brings something different,” Chody said. He said his office uses Instagram and Snapchat to connect with a younger audience, Facebook for an older one, and Twitter to communicate with the news media. 

His office also uses Nextdoor to target information to individual subdivisions. For example, they posted a request to a neighborhood asking residents to stay indoors while their SWAT team handled a nearby threat. 

In another NextDoor post, the department shared an alert about a missing young person. “We had been looking for 30 minutes,” Chody said. “Once we posted on NextDoor, within 10 minutes we had a community member saying, ‘I just saw that young man over here.’ We were able to quickly find the child, bring him home and get him the help he needed.”

He added a word of caution about social media use. “The difficulty is putting out info so quickly you don’t have an opportunity to vet that info like you want to. But the media and the public are pretty understanding if you are willing to retract it or correct it right away.” The rewards outweigh any risks, he said. “It’s been a great tool for us.” 

His office has also turned its K9 unit into social media stars through photos and videos. “People love animals,” Chody said. “It’s built a bridge with the community. It’s built a bridge with our deputies.”

Many of his and his deputies’ posts are humorous. “It has paid dividends for us —created relationships in our community and with younger generations,” he said. “The community trusts us now. The media trusts us.”

County Guidebook

Washington County Clerk Beth Rothermel

Clerk Beth Rothermel aimed to track down every county clerk who had previously held that office. Two years later, her research project produced a 77-page book about that and much more. 

The spiral-bound publication grew to list those who have served in every other county office. It details Washington County history, provides current demographic information and includes summaries about the role of each office in county government.

“The more I found, the more I wanted to include,” Rothermel said. 

Rothermel’s fellow county officials pitched in to help with writing, proofing and binding. Input from officials also helped shape the content. 

For instance, County Commissioner Kirk Hanath asked if Rothermel could include details on when the commissioners court voted to grant a discount on payment of property taxes. That spurred her to research and include the county tax rates back to 1867.

The publication is free and available from county offices, the public library and on the county website. Rothermel said all the work was worth it. “I hope it will be the go-to spot for all things county government.”