Montgomery County Emergency Services District No. 10 commissioners voted unanimously to approve a public outreach and communications plan during a May 13 meeting to improve the district’s relationship with the community and acknowledge previous wrongdoing, said Kelly Violette, who serves as secretary and treasurer for the ESD.
Violette, who also serves as executive director of the Tomball Economic Development Corp., said she and President Larry Smith make up the communications committee, which was formed at the ESD’s previous meeting.
“In order to turn [the district] around, we have to get our message out there in a way that’s positive,” Smith said during the May 13 meeting.
ESD 10 and the Magnolia Volunteer Fire Department—which contracts with the ESD to provide services—saw changes in leadership in March following a lawsuit filed by an assistant fire chief that raised questions about misconduct within the department, Community Impact Newspaper previously reported. The entire ESD 10 board was replaced in early March following new appointments by Montgomery County Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley, Community Impact Newspaper previously reported.
While ESD commissioners have since approved settling the lawsuit and the assistant fire chief has been rehired by the fire department, as Community Impact Newspaper reported, commissioners noted May 13 it is important to acknowledge any wrongdoing before the public.
“We’re here for a reason, so [we need to] acknowledge the wrongdoing and move forward and figure out a way to address it,” Violette said.
She said communications issues critical to address include: commissioners introducing themselves to both ESD and fire department staff as well as community members, acknowledging the issues surrounding recent allegations and leadership changes and hearing community concerns.
The commissioners approved contracting with Winkler Public Relations for a communications plan, including help with public outreach and organization of open houses with staff and community members to hear concerns, Violette said.
Violette, who works with Winkler Public Relations in her role with the TEDC, said the firm is familiar with crisis management.
“We’re dealing with a crisis and trying to fix this and move forward in a positive way that’s not just going to be positive for the ESD but for the fire department,” she said. “It’s a black eye that we’re all kind of carrying.”
Commissioners previously said town hall meetings would be held with community members to gather input as the ESD navigates terminating its contract with the MVFD. On March 18, the ESD voted to start the process of terminating its contract with the MVFD, effective Jan. 1, 2022, which would result in the ESD being the direct employer and provider of services.
Winkler Public Relations will be paid at an hourly rate, which is expected to total $5,000-$7,000 for the first few months of work, Violette said, with services totaling about $3,000-$3,500 after that time. The ESD is anticipating working with the public relations firm on public outreach for about two years, she said.
“I feel like it’s going to be worth it in the long run,” Smith said.
Commissioner Jeff Cunningham questioned the benefits of investing in a communications plan beyond gaining a positive image; Fire Chief Jeff Hevey said improved communication among the ESD and staff and residents may help improve the culture within the fire department as well.
Assistant Fire Chief Jason Hermann said greater communication with the community is vital to the fire department’s future.
“We’re only successful as the people standing behind us. I think over the past couple months and whatnot, there’s been some bad light shined on us as a whole when it came down to a very, very small amount of people. I think because of the whole change of position on the ESD board, regardless of anything that went with that, I think that just looked bad,” Herrman said. “The community’s support is the only way we succeed. ... Getting the message out of, ‘Hey, we realize there’s a problem, and we’re fixing it, and things are going to be better’—I think we owe that to the community at this point.”