City of Gastonia’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiative

You may be aware of the City’s Annual Strategic Plan that is adopted every year by City Council. It is basically a blueprint for how we operate our City and what goals we intend to meet in the future. In 2018, City management began working with City Council to develop a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiative focused on fairness and inclusion for the entire community that we serve.

After many meetings and discussions, City management realized that a DEI initiative would be a major undertaking and would not necessarily be easy. They also realized that a dedicated staff person was needed to help frame our ideas and meet goals. With that in mind, the City has begun the process to hire a Coordinator of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. This person will work in the community and internally as we shape this initiative.

Communications and Marketing Director Mary Elliott talked with Deputy City Manager Todd Carpenter about the reasons for the City's DEI initiative, the goals for the program and what employees can expect.

Elliott: How did the City’s DEI initiative come about?  
Carpenter: City management began working with Council in 2018 to develop a DEI initiative focused on fairness and inclusiveness for the entire community that we serve. The strategy is to be built around a culture of understanding that embraces the differences, needs and struggles of individuals and groups so that the City can better serve our residents. We are conscientious about the fact that this will not be necessarily easy. We want to do this right and we want to be successful. This is not about numbers but about a cultural education and understanding that will result in more equality for all.

DEI   puzzle piecesElliott: What is the City’s goal for DEI?
Carpenter: The goal for this fiscal year is to hire a Coordinator of DEI and acclimate this person to the City’s organization, culture, policies and decision-making processes. The overall goal is to better serve our entire community. To do this we will need to get better at acknowledging the biases that exist within every one of us and how this can impact our jobs and decisions. We need to acknowledge that the more diverse our organization can become, the better we will be internally and the better we can serve our citizens.

Elliott: Why is it important for the City to have DEI goals?
Carpenter: Because the City of Gastonia exists to serve everyone. Regardless of a person’s age, gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity, race, health, etc. we have a duty to serve all equally and inclusively.

Elliott: How will our employees benefit from DEI?
Carpenter: Our employees will benefit if we are successful in helping them to build literacy around our differences and recognize the need for us all to gain a better understanding of those outside of our homogeneous and immediate communities.

Elliott: What can employees expect as our goals are being implemented around DEI?
Carpenter: Employees can expect training, education, and opportunities to participate in diversity, equity and inclusion where they can be a champion for this program.

Elliott: How did the new Coordinator of DEI position come about?
Carpenter: It grew out of City management and Council gaining better insight into the complexities associated with our DEI initiative. The more training we received on DEI the more we understood our own limitations. To be successful we need someone with the right amount of training, education and experience to build around our strategies and implement the right program that will meet the City’s goals.

Elliott: How will this person work with the community?
Carpenter: I see this person working with the community through various organizations, community watches, neighborhood initiatives, town halls, etc. I see this person working for the community through our employees, management, departments, council committees and policy making. 

Elliott: How does a person apply for the job?
Carpenter: Anyone who is interested and qualified or knows someone who is can apply for the position through the City’s website

Policing in 2020 versus 1987: An interview with Chief Robert Helton

BLET class in 1987 with captionMany things have changed for officers joining the Gastonia Police Department today compared to when Robert Helton first joined the department in 1987. Since Chief Helton retires Oct. 1, Employee Focus staff asked him for his thoughts about how much things have changed. As one might expect, cell phones topped the list.

“Back when I started there were no cell phones,” Helton said. “I can remember it being a big deal when some of the supervisors got one of those bag phones to put in their cars and it was only for emergencies. It had very limited minutes and you could only use it for extreme emergencies. I remember thinking back then ‘Why would you want a telephone in your car?’ and never would have imagined everybody having one or two cell phones now.”

Back then officers were initially contacted for calls for service by Dispatch on their handheld or car radios and officers would provide a payphone number for Dispatch to call them with the details.

“There were payphones on every corner,” Helton said. “When somebody would give out a telephone number, a 7 digit number, I could just about tell you where they were, oh they’re on Garrison or over at Akers Center because I would remember the numbers at those different payphones. You could almost pick out where they were sitting at. That was kind of fun.”

Streets and Maps

The ability to read a paper map, knowing streets and finding your way to calls was a big part of the job in 1987 versus now in 2020 when you just follow GPS.

That was a big deal back then with a new trainee and when I was training people later on as to how well they could read a map and how well they could follow it,” he said. “Sometimes we’d be on the way to a call and they’d get turned around, and unless it was an emergency where I’d say this is how we get there, I’d say ‘pull over, find it.’ They’d have to pull over, get their map back out, figure out where they were and find it. We would do little challenges then when we were training someone. I would think of a street that was kind of obscure where we didn’t go very often, and I’d say ‘hey, take me to this place.’ So they’d have to find it and take me there. That was a little test, so very different.”

No AM/FM Radio Allowed In Cars

Supervisors wanted officers to focus on calls for service. “They would check the cars sometimes to make sure you didn’t have a little transistor radio,” Helton said. “You were not supposed to have those. Of course now with smartphones you’ve got everything.”

Old PDLess-Lethal Weapons

Back then when officers arrived at a call for service and got out of their cars to talk with citizens, they looked a little like today’s officers wearing riot gear. “Your less-lethal weapon was a wooden baton. You had your firearm and a wooden baton. So you can imagine today getting out on a call with that baton and putting it in your belt or holding it in your hand while you’re talking to somebody. A much different and intimidating look. So now we have the ASP baton that collapses and goes on the belts, you don’t even really see it’s there, OC spray, Tasers, all of that being a much better remedy when you’re dealing with somebody who’s combative rather than something that’s going to injure somebody.”

Firearms

GPD’s standard issue firearm has changed from revolvers to the .45-caliber Smith & Wesson.

“When I started we had revolvers, old six shooters with speed loaders to load it,” Helton said. “You put the speed loader in there, click it and you hope your bullets didn’t fall out when you’re going through your training. But now of course, they’ve got semi-automatics with magazines and it’s just so much easier.”

Rotating Shifts

Today the GPD has three Patrol Districts: East, West and Central, but that wasn’t the case in 1987. Instead of three Patrol Districts, there were five Patrol Teams: Adam, Baker, Charlie, David and Eagle Teams. On each team officers worked a rotating shift that started with third shift, and then went to second and first shifts with a three day break between each shift change.

“At the end of that rotation was a four-and-a-half day break before you would come back onto third again,” Helton said. “Work days fell wherever they fell. You may work every weekend, you may work holidays. Now Patrol officers are on permanent shifts with every other weekend off. That’s a little easier for planning and easier too on your body because back then when you’re swinging shifts every week it’s hard to keep up with when to eat, when to sleep, when to do anything when you’re constantly in that change mode.”

West District 2Patrol Teams and Camaraderie

Back in the day of the five Patrol teams, your team was who you worked with all the time at the GPD. “I really think that back then shifts and teams seemed to be a little closer because you were with the same people all the time,” Helton said. “The difference was when you were off, you were off and didn’t have the around the clock responsibility of today. Now there are districts and you’re responsible for a district and a captain is over that district all the time. So there’s a lot more responsibility and a lot more accountability around the clock now than back then.

“I think with everybody mixing and working with other districts and other supervisors I don’t know that they have that same camaraderie, that same team feeling that maybe was back in the day when you worked with the same sergeants and the same captain and you were the ones working the whole city all the time. A little difference in the assignment. Back then you’d see a shift after second shift, say for example, they’d hang around an hour or two hours sometimes after the shift talking out in the back parking lot. It just seemed different back then. Maybe it’s just a change of times, and that was before cell phones and social media too.”

Special Teams

There were no special teams in 1987. That came a little later with SWAT and the Crisis Negotiations Team, Bomb Squad, Traffic Unit, and Street Crimes Unit. It was in the late ‘80s when Chief Jack Postell started bringing in special teams, Helton said.

Increased Family Involvement

The GPD offers more ways today for family interaction with events like swearing-in ceremonies, Family Days and Awards ceremonies.

“Back then when you were hired you were brought in the Chief’s office,” Helton said. “They gave you your badge, said go down to Property and get your uniforms and you just kind of went to work. Now I think we do much more to recognize our family and friends, which I think is so important. Your family is your support system. I think including family helps tremendously and is a very positive change that’s been made over the years.”

Bike Patrols Helton ChambersCommunity Policing and Shift-Level Investigation

Back in 1987, Patrol officers cleared calls as quickly as possible to be available for the next call, and reports were all paper, and not the current software system.

“Now with Community Policing, there’s a whole different mindset of going to calls, meeting people, solving the problem and working through it,” Helton explained. “We’ve realized through Community Policing the importance of being in connection with the community. It was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when that concept came into place. I remember back when I first started there were areas of town that you couldn’t respond to without having a backup car with you. The relationship was not good. But now I don’t know of any place like that. We have a much better relationship across the whole community.

“Follow up investigations are different now too. That was kind of unheard of back when I started. Everything that needed to be investigated would go to Detectives. Shift level investigation is something newer.”

Physical Abilities Testing

In Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET) in 1987 the physical test was to do a 4-mile run in 40 minutes so everyone worked on building up their run all through BLET. Today, the 4-mile run has been replaced by the POPAT (Police Officer Physical Ability Test).

“Now it’s a test of your strength and ability. You run a short distance, jump over something, crawl under something, do pushups, do sit ups, pull a dummy, to test your overall ability, which is probably much more work-related than a 4-mile run,” Helton said.

You’re On Camera Now

In 1987 if pictures were needed, officers called the Identification (ID) Bureau.

“Back then no cameras were on calls, and you didn’t think about cameras on calls,” Helton said.If you needed somebody to take a picture you called ID out to take pictures. Now there are cameras on every call, the body-worn cameras. There are cell phones on every call. There are pictures and video on just about everything we do."

Three Decades of Change

So many things have changed in the last three decades. Some things run their course like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) or the Field Training Officer (FTO) Program and are replaced with other programs like kids camps, Shop with a Cop, and the Police Training Officer (PTO) Program.

Some things like DNA evidence, 3D images to aid investigations, and a lot of training conducted online are here to stay. Most progress helps the GPD stay in step with changing times like adding dash cameras in the 1990s or increase professionalism like obtaining national accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) in 2014.

One Thing That Hasn’t Changed

The GPD has awesome employees. “You have the best people in the world to work with then and now,” Helton said. “How many people can say this group of people would lay down their life for each other? I do think that when we are at our worst, when things are going badly, when there’s an emergency, that’s when we’re at our best. That’s really when we do our best work and come together, pull together and work as a team. That’s always so great to see when things get tough.

“In law enforcement, we see people when they’re troubled, a crime’s been committed, or something’s happened and they’re a victim or even a suspect. It’s nice to see that other side, and we’ve seen that a lot even recently with all that’s happening in the community with the challenges with COVID and the challenges with social things happening. We’ve really seen the community come around us and support us.”

New provider at City's OnSite employee clinic

Family Nurse Practitioner Leonor Lourido, or “Leo,” is the new medical care provider at the City’s OnSiteClinic. She started seeing patients in July andLeonor Lourido 2020Leonor Lourido says she already likes the job and the people. 

Lourido's parents are from Cuba and she grew up in Miami. After graduating from high school, she served in the U.S. Army and was deployed to Afghanistan. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of South Carolina and went to graduate school at the Medical University of South Carolina. She has lived in the Carolinas for more than 28 years and describes herself as “Cuban-American with a Carolina heart.”

Lourido has worked at Providence Hospital in Columbia and Centro Médico Latino in Charlotte. She now works for Atrium Health. She says she was attracted to the position at Gastonia’s employer-based clinic because “helping employees achieve optimal health in their work environment is very efficient for both the patient and the employer.” She says it also gives her an opportunity to educate people about living healthy lives and preventing illness and injury.

Outside of work, Lourido enjoys spending time with her family, cooking, reading, exercising and hiking. She continues to serve in the Army National Guard.

Angela Albero PA C 2018Angela AlberoLourido is taking the place of Angela Albero, following Albero’s promotion to oversee 15 clinics including the one for City of Gastonia employees. Albero actually began in her new role as an Atrium Advance Practice Provider in 2015 and became Chief Advance Practice Provider almost two years ago. She kept working at the Gastonia clinic until the supervisory responsibilities “grew exponentially,” as she puts it. In the new role, Albero will evaluate the services being provided at the 15 clinics in the two Carolinas, look for ways to improve the services and train the clinic providers in new processes and protocols.

Albero says she believes employer-based clinics are extremely important because they provide affordable care with a convenient location and hours for employees. She says the clinic’s accessibility and value are incentives for preventive care. “We know very well that preventive care is more impactful than reactionary care, or treating a disease after it has developed,” Albero says. “If we can ensure easy access to high-quality care, we can truly help improve preventive health and wellness in our communities and help reduce overall health care spending,” she says.

For just $3.00 per visit, employees can be treated at the OnSite Clinic at City Hall for acute care needs such as allergies, colds, flu and sprains, and also for management of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Employees can also go to the clinic for preventive care such as routine health screenings and immunizations, and to receive advice on lifestyle habits such as nutrition, exercise and tobacco cessation. “We want employees to see the clinic as a place to obtain full primary care services,” Albero says.

To make an appointment, call 704-836-0015 or schedule online.

City Clerk Sherry Dunaway to retire

Sherry CertificateFromCouncil

“It’s been quite a ride,” Sherry Dunaway says with a smile. The native Gastonian is talking about her more than 33 years working for the City. She started in the Legal Department, then worked the majority of her years in the Police Department. About five years ago, she became the city clerk.

“There are many milestones I am proud of, but I am most proud of how I worked my way up to city clerk,” she says. “I feel like I have served the citizens to the best of my ability.”

SherryDunaway desk compressed2The city clerk keeps the City’s permanent records. That means attending every City Council meeting and transcribing the minutes. She keeps City ordinances up to date. The clerk also serves as a liaison between the City’s elected officials and its employees.

And the phone on Dunaway’s desk rings all day long. Nearly every question that citizens ask, she can answer off the top of her head. For the few callers whose questions stump the clerk, Dunaway knows who to contact to get the answer. “My goal is to always try to get people an answer or put them in touch with someone who can,” she says.

The mayor and members of the City Council had plenty of praise for Dunaway when she was honored at the June 16 Council meeting.

“This is bittersweet,” Mayor Walker Reid said of her retirement. “But all good things must come to an end. Your personality, your work ethic and your friendship have meant a lot. We will miss you,” Reid said.

Another long-term member of the Council also had high praise for Dunaway. Mayor Pro Tem Dave Kirlin thanked her for doing her job “dependably, faithfully and cheerfully,” and said he had never heard Dunaway complain.

Councilman Robert Kellogg thanked Dunaway for making the jobs of councilmembers easier. He called her a “ray of sunshine” and said he didn’t know if she ever stopped smiling. Councilman Jim Gallagher said, from his first day on the City Council, Dunaway made him “feel right at home.” Councilwoman Jennifer Stepp said Dunaway has a “servant’s heart” and said she would miss the clerk’s “sweet smile and sweet spirit.”

First-term councilwoman Donyel Barber said she “admires” Dunaway. She thanked the clerk for making her feel welcome and for all that Dunaway has done for the City. Charles Odom, also in his first term on Council, described Dunaway as “remarkable” and said, “I wish there were more people like you who present the spirit of love that you show.”

Dunaway plans to stay busy in retirement. She and her husband, Dean, own an estate-sale business called Finders Keepers. She has two adult sons and three granddaughters who give her even more reasons to smile.

“I am so thankful that I have been able to have a long career with the City of Gastonia,” she says. Dunaway specifically mentions the City's benefits package and retirement plan. “It is a great place to work and I am proud of our City and employees. They do a great job every day.”

And if you couldn’t tell, she’s still smiling! 

Grateful to be able to help -- public service during the pandemic

by Kristy Crisp, Economic Development Director

Economic development is both rewarding and challenging for many of the same reasons. Most of the work that we do requires developing relationships with members of our community, potential developers and others interested in Gastonia.

As our businesses grow, we celebrate with them, but also when times are tough it is hard to separate from their struggles. This is the case that the Economic Development Department has been grappling with since the onset of COVID-19.

Tori for articleFrom the beginning, Economic Development Specialist Tori Stalcup has exhibited the strong emotional intelligence needed to navigate personalities. Her resiliency coupled with her strength have made her perfect for working with our Downtown property owners and businesses. COVID-19 has only amplified her passion for her work. As the pandemic started and the stay-at-home orders began, Tori watched with a feeling of helplessness as our businesses began to close. Instantly she began talking with each one, compassionately listening to their stories and fear.

Tori turned that into determination to explore every way the City could assist our businesses during this time. When the large federal loan programs and unemployment proved to be challenging, Tori would touch base with all businesses, provide contact information and help connect our businesses to a person who could help them.

When Gastonia became a partner with the Gaston County COVID Relief fund, Tori made sure each business was applying to get assistance with utility payments.

But with all this work, what struck me was how this pandemic brought out even more in Tori. I laughed as she began a mission to get takeout meals from every Downtown restaurant and post photos on social media. I am pretty sure that most all of Tori’s COVID relief check went back into Downtown Gastonia.

She did all of this not because it was her job, but she told me one morning that she felt a weight of gratitude. Working with local businesses and seeing their struggles gave her a greater understanding of what it means to work in public service. She struggled with the knowledge that while so many were hurting, City government employees were fortunate to continue working and getting paid. It made her work even harder to listen and support our businesses with gratitude and humility.

Tori’s selflessness during COVID is a great reminder for us all that working in public service is a rewarding calling.

Small Business grants FB post

FB Freemans Pub lunchTori FB post

City employees going above and beyond

Gastonia Transit drivers are among the essential workers who cannot work from home. Driving a City bus can be stressful any time, as drivers navigate Cleaning busestraffic snarls and inclement weather to meet precise timepoints on their routes. Year-round, Transit serves some of the City’s most vulnerable residents – people without their own means of transportation who need to get to work, to the doctor or to the store.

The City stopped charging a fare to ride buses from March 25 to June 30, helping those with the greatest need and fewest transportation options. But operating public transportation during a public health emergency requires a lot more cleaning and sanitation. “This pandemic has added to the stress of bus drivers coming to work and being asked to do more,” says Community Services Director Vincent Wong. “They are doing extra cleanings of buses and doing it while putting themselves and their loved ones at risk. I am really proud of all the Transit workers coming to work every day and being professional,” Wong says.

Risks and rewards

Most Gastonia Transit drivers are grateful to serve the City’s residents and like interacting with them, but are a bit cautious because of the possible spread of the coronavirus. “I enjoy my job because I enjoy being around people,” says bus driver Charles Littlejohn. “However, times are different. There’s a lot of sickness going on and you have to be careful about interaction.”

Peter Gomes says his job as a bus driver is more hectic now because he has to clean the interior and doorways of his bus after each round trip or every hour, and deep-clean the bus twice daily. He knows it’s possible a passenger might have the virus. “There is a lot of anxiety,” Gomes says. “My wife and family are ‘high risk.’ I want to do my job, but I also worry about bringing something home.”

Bus driver Jody Paulk says she is trying to keep her passengers and herself safe. “You never know who you are picking up and their health,” Paulk says. “It’s a little nerve-wracking because we are putting ourselves at risk, but we know the job we have to do.”

Transit bus stop sign 2013Driver Preston Smith acknowledges the risks but also the rewards, saying, “We deal with a lot of different people from different backgrounds. We try to help and to do our part to serve the community.”

Commitment to public service seems to “drive” all of the City’s bus drivers, especially service to those with few other options. “(The pandemic) has really affected the senior citizens, and it is sad. Many don’t have the family or support to get the supplies they need, so they travel on our buses to get it themselves,” says driver Phyllis Lowery. “This is why we don’t mind having free fare. It can add stress for us, but we know people really need it and we see how we are serving the community.”

Fellow driver Angel Leak hears from grateful passengers every day. “For our riders, we are the way they get to the grocery store or the doctor’s office. I am just thankful to be able to help people,” Leak says. Driver Agnes Hill agrees, saying, “It is an honor to serve our community. Some people are not fortunate to have their own transportation and it feels good to serve and help them through this difficult time.”

According to Smith, the fact that City buses kept rolling during the stay at home orders points out the important role of public transit. “People are really starting to understand the important part our job plays in the community,” Smith says of bus drivers.

'Thankless' job

Wong, whose department includes the Transit Division, says even though bus drivers are front-line employees, their efforts are often overlooked. City bus Blue Line at Union & Garrison 2018   edited“Sometimes the job is thankless,” he says. “Especially when you have passengers who may be lonely or down on their luck and really struggling. All the interaction that person may have is with the bus driver.”

Wong says drivers have dutifully showed up during the pandemic, meaning the City has not had to limit bus routes. “Everyone is working and doing their part to keep operations running,” Wong says.

To better protect bus drivers, passengers are now required to enter and exit from the rear of the bus. And employees of Public Works/Equipment Services installed plexiglass partitions to separate drivers from riders. A federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) grant will help cover the costs of fare-free ridership, additional cleaning and the barriers to protect Gastonia Transit drivers.

Schiele employees assist other departments

A number of City employees are temporarily working at locations where there is a greater need. Luis Rivera is a custodian at the Schiele Museum. Before COVID-19, he cleaned the museum’s galleries and many different surfaces each day. When the museum closed to the public in mid-March because of the pandemic, Rivera deep-cleaned the entire facility, including the carpets. After that, he began working at the City’s Bradley Transit Center.

For a couple of months now, Rivera’s been cleaning the bus station’s restrooms and administrative area. Public Works/Building Maintenance Manager Stephen Webber says his division is down one employee, so he welcomes Rivera’s assistance. Webber says his custodial crew continues to clean City buildings and facilities, taking extra steps to disinfect. “They are so unselfish, even in these uncertain times,” Webber says of his custodians. “They work in the trenches and they don’t complain. They come in, work hard and do their jobs.”

Before the pandemic, Cole McLean was working as a landscaper and maintenance technician at the Schiele, assisting with the upkeep of the museum grounds. He has been temporarily reassigned to Public Works.

Help with in-house recycling

Parks and Recreation employee Mark Weaver is now making the rounds of City buildings. He’s temporarily assisting with in-house recycling during the COVID-19 outbreak, collecting recyclables like corrugated cardboard and office paper. Weaver has worked for the City for more than 30 years, most recently at the Skeet and Trap Range and at the Rankin Lake boathouse. Weaver also continues to work for Parks and Recreation by doing some landscaping in the Downtown area.

“Mark is doing a great job with little or no training,” says Public Works/Solid Waste Division Manager DeeDee Gillis. “We’re able to keep our in-house recycling program going with no delays.”

Human Resources Director Judy Smith says these examples illustrate the dedication and flexibility of the City’s workforce. “Many employees are stepping up to take on additional tasks, filling in where there is a need, or going above and beyond,” Smith says. “We are proud of our City employees who are adapting and adjusting to serve our customers and help their coworkers during this unprecedented time.”

 

Schiele Museum serves up an engaging "to-go" menu

(This article intentionally contains a lot of links. Please click the links and enjoy seeing what Schiele employees have been creating during the pandemic.)

It’s midnight at Candice Jordan’s house. Everything is finally quiet. Her husband and her two kids under the age of 3 are sleeping. Jordan, the planetarium administrator for the Schiele Museum, sneaks into a closet with her smartphone and records a 27-second

in which she describes the size of hurricane eyes. Hurricanes are like coffeeShe’s energetic and the filters she uses are funny. You’d never know that particular Weather Wednesday segment was shot in the dark of night – in a closet – during a work-from-home pandemic.

When the Schiele Museum closed to the public on March 16 because of coronavirus stay-at-home orders, educators at the mostly hands-on museum were faced with a challenge. “Usually, we think of education in terms of live programs and classes,” says Tony Paysour, the museum’s head of interpretation. “The museum is a place where you see collections and exhibits, not images on a screen.”

Without the option of educating in person, the museum staff began using technology to teach and engage virtually. The educators came up with a combination of live and pre-recorded programs accessible online and on request. “We, as an institution, cover a large range of topics,” says Schiele program specialist Hannah Salemi. “We decided that our online and virtual presence should do the same thing.”

Creature Feature

Bob the turtleOne of the most popular virtual programs features the Schiele’s live animals. Creature Feature can be seen live on Facebook, with a different “animal ambassador” from the museum each week. “We allow for live participation from our virtual audience, and people really like that!” Salemi says.

Creature Feature has put the spotlight on Teddy the hedgehog, Obie the Eastern kingsnake, Hazel the opossum, Bob the turtle, Smaug the American alligator, and goats with names like Blackbeard and BLT. Educator Keeley Zimmerman explains what the animals eat, how big or small they are, even why visitors should not feed gummy bears to goats. As part of the fun, Schiele fans got to vote on the alligator’s name and chose Smaug after the dragon in The Hobbit.

Dome @ Home

Because audiences can’t enjoy live shows in the planetarium, museum employees are giving people the next-best thing. “Dome at Home allows you to see The Sky Tonightplanetarium shows from home on your computer or other smart device,” Jordan says. The museum created four shows, each more than 20 minutes long, with titles like, “The Zula Patrol: Under the Weather,” “Faster than Light” and “Solar Superstorms.” All shows can be seen for free after signing up to receive the links.

with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. That interview was done April 24, during the pandemic.

Weather Wednesdays

Weather Wednesday eye of a hurricaneThe Schiele started doing

late last year. The quick videos explore weather-related topics in a fun, easy-to-understand way. The weekly videos continue during the days of COVID-19, but now Jordan shoots them at home rather than at work. In two recent segments, she explained what hurricanes have in common with hot coffee and she used a googly-eye filter to help illustrate the size of hurricane eyes.

Virtual Bug Week

Late May usually means the ever-popular Bug Day at the Schiele, with hands-on exhibits and bug-eating demonstrations. This year, it became Virtual Bug Week, crawling onto users’ screens via YouTube, Facebook Live and Instagram. The Madagascar Hissing Cockroach presentation drew a lot of questions on Facebook Live. And the Schiele offered Bug Week worksheets for kids on its website.

Schiele to Go

Outreach coordinator MC Douglas and Salemi teamed up to create three programs to be sent to schools and small groups. The Schiele to Go topics are paleontology, geology and American Indian historical and cultural studies. The packets combine online instruction and hands-on activities.

, a feature about the baby dinosaur exhibit
,
, a visit to the
, and more. Museum employees videotaped these segments to highlight local flora and fauna, exhibits at the museum, the live animals, and the planetarium.

Challenges

For educators accustomed to live interactions with groups of people, creating videos has been a fun challenge. “I feel like it’s made me more creative and resourceful since I don’t have my regular store of props and items on hand,” Jordan says. Another challenge for her is balancing work and child care at home, which is why she recorded that video in her closet at midnight. “That’s an interesting memory for sure,” she says with a laugh.

Salemi says another challenge has been the technology. “Although most of the people in the museum’s education department are comfortable with these platforms, it has been a learning curve when trying to figure out how best to offer all of this information in a new way,” she says. “It’s definitely taken a lot of effort to pull off successfully.”

Dome at Home GastoniaThe Schiele isn’t the only museum in the nation that’s turned to virtual education during the pandemic. “One of the biggest challenges is that, once you go online with a product, you are competing at a global level,” Paysour says. “Every science museum, if they are able, is engaging audiences virtually.” He says that means the Schiele is competing on the internet and social media with giants like the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

What makes the Schiele unique is its ability to personalize and regionalize its content because employees know their audiences. “We want to provide the quality local content that people can enjoy,” Jordan says. “The Schiele is a resource for local residents, and we want to continue to be that resource from home.”

Helping educators and at-home learners

Area schools closed at about the same time the museum did, but students were expected to continue to learn from home. The Schiele’s virtual learning options have been a godsend for many parents and educators. Jordan says teachers have praised the Schiele’s lessons as a way to enhance distance learning for their students. And one teacher had her students watch the YouTube video of Jordan’s interview about the Hubble telescope. She says the public has been “very supportive” of the Schiele's online approach.

SnakeMuseum educators have also appeared on local TV stations such as the popular Wilson’s World on WCCB to conduct science experiments and promote the museum’s virtual learning opportunities.

“We’ve had some really positive feedback from the public,” Salemi says of their online outreach. “And it has continued to grow the longer we’ve been closed, which has been really encouraging.”

Paysour says it has been “amazing” to see how educators and students have adapted to distance learning. “Virtual programming has opened new environments for both teachers and learners to explore. There has been a great deal of ingenuity and experimentation, and almost certainly some of these new ideas and approaches will remain after things get back to normal,” Paysour says.

No busloads of kids

Usually in May and early June, school buses pack the Schiele’s parking lot. Many students who are done with end-of-grade tests head to the Schiele for fun field trips. But not this year. “We certainly have missed our visitors,” says Paysour. “Not just the field trips of students, but our everyday visitors from across the region.”

Salemi echoes that. “Although the kids can sometimes be overwhelming and I know we have all wished for a quiet day in May from time to time, there is nothing I miss more right now than being able to teach kids in person,” she says.

A reopening date for the Schiele Museum has not been set, but Paysour says he’s eager to open the doors again. “We’re excited about the opportunity to reopen to our visitors soon, and we’re planning to provide a great experience once that time comes,” he says.

But don’t be surprised if the Schiele continues to offer virtual programs after the pandemic is behind us. They just might not be videotaped in employees’ closets in the future.

Tiny Titans

Proposed FY21 City budget

The Gastonia City Council is scheduled to vote June 2 on the proposed City budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The unexpected economic disruptions of COVID-19 began as City leaders were finalizing the budget proposal. City revenues from many sources are expected to decline, at least temporarily, because of the pandemic. As a result, the proposed budget contains a contingency plan and some spending restrictions. Incoming revenue will be monitored and expenditures will be managed, some new initiatives will be delayed and hiring to fill some vacant positions may be postponed.

For the seventh consecutive year, the budget provides pay raises for full-time and part-time City employees. Proposed:

  • Salary increases range from 2.5%-4.0% based on years of service.
  • Eligible employees will receive a $350 Christmas bonus.
  • Eligible employees enrolled in the 401(k) program will continue to receive a 5% contribution from the City.
  • Eligible employees will each receive a $750 payment to their Health Savings Accounts. Employees not eligible for an HSA under federal law will receive the same amount.

The proposed budget would increase the amount the City spends on employee salaries by more than $1.6 million. In addition, the City would spend $348,000 more on employee benefits. Almost 73% of the General Fund are costs related to personnel expenses, such as salaries and benefits.

The City’s contribution to the NC Local Government Retirement System has increased by $825,000 this fiscal year, but the budget does not pass those added costs to employees. Under the proposal, the premiums that employees pay for health insurance coverage will not change. The onsite health clinic remains open to employees and eligible retirees. Wellness initiatives and incentives will continue in the coming fiscal year.

The proposed budget does not change the City’s property tax rate. Electric rates and solid waste fees also are to remain the same. Small increases are planned for water, sewer and stormwater fees to address infrastructure needs.

Technology Services and COVID-19 telecommuting

The coronavirus outbreak has brought us new phrases, like social distancing, essential employees and working from home. When counties and the State of North Marys officeCarolina issued “stay at home” orders in late March, the City of Gastonia updated its Telecommuting Policy. By definition, telecommuting is using technology to work from a different location. And the City’s Technology Services Department took the lead in making it possible for some employees to telecommute during the pandemic.

Technology Services Director Beverly Bieker says many City employees already work remotely in the field or have devices that allow remote connectivity to the City’s network. “However, the work-from-home directive affected a large number of employees who did not have access,” she says. And the task of giving employees the tools they need to work from home fell to Tech Services.

Some telecommuters needed a City-owned laptop computer. Others, like call center employees, needed a phone, loaner laptop and monitor. Some simply needed instructions from Tech Services on how to access their work computer using a remote desktop connection. And every telecommuter needed to sign paperwork indicating they had read and would abide by City policies.

Computer ImagingThe City was able to provide loaner laptops to some workers. “We were very lucky that we recently replaced the public safety mobile laptops and actually had excess equipment on hand,” Bieker says. “Normally we do not have a large number of laptops sitting around in case of an emergency.” For others, the City provided a software remote-access solution that allows the employee to use a personal device. Bieker says that decreased the need for loaner laptops.

So far, telecommuting been successful, but it hasn’t been flawless. Employees’ home internet must have good speed and connectivity. And workers need to learn the process of connecting from a device at home to a City server. Bieker says the HelpDesk got more calls than usual when telecommuting first started, but says “the overall experience has been positive.”

Entrust button and on phoneA recent national survey found 40% of American adults have worked from home during the coronavirus outbreak. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that those jobs are mostly in management, business, finance and other tied-to-the-desk kinds of careers. Bieker says the City departments with the largest number of employees working from home are Finance, Development Services/Engineering, Public Utilities and Public Works.

Even some Tech Services employees are telecommuting, but not everyone. “Not all of our department's staff have this option due to the critical hands-on support that Technology Services provides,” Bieker says. To minimize exposure to others, Tech Services has reduced the number of employees in the office. And it is limiting visits to the radio shop to critical repairs. The City is responsible for first-responder radios for agencies throughout the County. She says her department is also emphasizing the need for first-responders and all City employees to clean their equipment and vehicles during the pandemic.

Technology Services also facilitated a change involving City Council meetings. The City Council has continued to meet in person, but the number of people in the meeting room is limited to 10. So the public comment portion of the meetings is being done remotely. Tech Services set up a phone line for those wishing to speak during a Council meeting. The callers are put into a queue which is controlled by staff, and Screen Shotthe meetings are livestreamed on the City’s website. Tech Services has also set up the videoconferencing platform Zoom to allow members of the City Council to meet from separate locations, if necessary. A Planning Commission meeting this month will probably use Zoom.

Bieker praises her staff for their quick action and for finding solutions when connectivity, licensing or equipment problems popped up. She says Tech Services employees have been “fully engaged in making sure the department is able to meet the needs of City users.” She adds that she “could not have asked for better staff. Everyone has been – and is – all in!”

 

Department profile: Communications and Marketing

The impact of the coronavirus has dramatically changed everyone’s day-to-day lives in a short period of time. The job of informing employees and the public about how the City’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak is the responsibility of the City’s Communications and Marketing (C&M) Department.

Gazette corona“Since early March, we’ve met with the City’s management team almost every day, sometimes several times a day,” says Communications and Marketing Department Director Mary Elliott. “When communicating about the coronavirus with the City’s employees or with residents, our goal is to provide clear, consistent and frequent information.”

Working closely with City management, C&M has crafted messages for employees and the public about the City’s response to the coronavirus, and then provided that information through emails, news releases, social media, videos, City News Source and the City’s website.

“We are a full-service department,” Elliott says. “We don’t just do one thing. We offer full service. We are the experts on communication strategy and the implementation of it.” She leads a three-person department which includes Public Information Specialist Donna Lahser and Communications Specialist Sharon Foote.

Communications and Marketing

Last October’s FUSE groundbreaking provides another example of C&M’s full-service approach. A partial list of the department’s work for the event includes news releases, City Council with baseball batsmore than two dozen social media posts, a video, advertisements, designing and ordering commemorative baseball bats for the mayor and city council, designing and ordering sports-themed stress balls given to the public, and working with reporters before and during the event.

In addition, Lahser notes that the department also creates brochures, flyers, website pages and Blackboard messages, takes photographs and shoots videos. Foote adds, “Those are the tangible tactics that people see. Behind the tactics is the strategic process – planning, research, knowledge, understanding how people think and how the different communication methods work.”

In that strategic process, the communications aspect focuses primarily on facts. The marketing aspect can involve feelings. Both are important parts of what the department does. “That’s why we’re Communications and Marketing,” Elliott says. It’s not just about providing public information. It’s also about understanding how we attract people to come here.”

The department works to educate the public about the many programs and services provided by the City of Gastonia. It also builds awareness of and support for the City’s capital projects, from the FUSE stadium to the renovated water plant. The department promotes Gastonia to help attract new businesses and encourage economic growth. And it provides the City government’s official “voice,” shaping and sharing the City’s official messages with news reporters and the public.

The increasing importance of City communications

Kristy and TVThe Communications and Marketing Department was formed in 2017. As recently as three years ago, one City employee handled nearly all communications and media relations for the City, plus promoted Gastonia’s downtown revitalization efforts. At that time, Lahser worked at the Gastonia Police Department, responsible for GPD’s media relations, social media and public information.

In 2020, Lahser still manages external communications for Police while working on a range of education and outreach projects for the City as a whole. Foote is in charge of the City’s social media accounts and the Employee Focus newsletter, and works on communications projects and initiatives for various departments. Downtown revitalization efforts are now under Economic Development, which also became a City department in 2017.

The changes have allowed the Communications and Marketing Department to expand its services and meet the rapidly changing communication needs of City departments and the public. Many goals and objectives for City departments, which are listed in the Strategic Plan, need to be communicated to the public or specific audiences. That task is often the responsibility of Communications and Marketing.

FB screenshot“With personal computers and smartphones, people get information from a wide range of sources,” Foote says. “It's no longer possible to get our message out to the entire city by sending a news release that results in one story in the local newspaper.” She says websites and social media give the City direct access to the public, but creating, posting and updating the content requires continuous effort.

In addition to written words, today’s audiences expect interesting photos and

. They want to be entertained and inspired, not just informed. And on social media, people want to engage. Social media is interactive, meaning it’s an ongoing two-way conversation with the public. The City uses platforms like Facebook and Twitter to provide messages. Just as important, C&M employees monitor the public’s responses, taking note as social media followers click “like,” “love,” or even “angry,” and make comments about the City’s posts. In the last full week of March, as the City posted information about Stay at Home orders and other COVID-19 updates, the number of people going to the City’s Facebook page increased 170% from the previous week.

In recent decades, the communications profession has become more complex. It takes more strategy and effort to reach and influence the City’s intended audiences – and their hearts and minds. Understanding the ever-changing complexities helps C&M to serve as a communications consultant to other City departments. “We are here to help our customers meet their goals,” Elliott says. “It’s not just saying, ‘Here’s that brochure you wanted,’ but, ‘How else can we help you, strategically, so you can meet your goals for your department?’”

Creative flair

AmAir ad v2On American Airlines flights, seat pockets contain American Way magazine with an advertisement for the City of Gastonia that will be seen by 7 million people. The ad was developed by Communications and Marketing. The department is also creating ads to promote Gastonia’s Downtown. Promoting the City and its amenities to local and global audiences is part of the department’s marketing efforts.

All three employees say a favorite part of their job is the opportunity to be creative. For Elliott, it’s the opportunity to “create the image we want for the City.” Lahser says writing news releases, creating social media posts, shooting and editing video, and learning new things are part of what she calls the “endless creativity” of her job.

But rarely is there time for creative daydreaming or getting lost in an adrenaline rush of creative juices. Communications and Marketing employees work on many projects at once, often with tight deadlines. “I could be working on a longer-term project and suddenly need to respond to reporters because of a jackknifed 18-wheeler,” Lahser says. “We don’t want to drop any balls, but we often are pulled in different directions.”

Along with meeting demands, Elliott says another challenge that requires creativity is managing expectations. Many of the department’s projects are designed to be visible to the public, which can invite critique or even criticism. Sometimes, the City’s outreach efforts are compared to those of other city governments or even Fuse Banner RGB July 2018private companies that have a large web team, a video team, a social media team, or an entire division dedicated to internal communications. “We have to manage expectations and manage our resources,” Elliott says. “That requires thinking outside of the box to come up with the best solutions. With years of communications experience under our belts, we can usually meet our customers’ expectations.”

Elliott says she is grateful that her department reports directly to the City Manager. “Many times, the communications department is buried inside the organizational chart,” she says. “That waters down the department’s credibility and ability to get things done.” Reporting directly to the City Manager and being able to coordinate messages with the City’s management team has been extremely important to C&M as it communicates the surge of ever-changing coronavirus pandemic information to employees and the public.

Whether it’s crisis communication or a community celebration, the Communications and Marketing Department helps tell Gastonia’s story, informing minds and influencing hearts of people who want to learn more about our great place, our great people and our great promise.

Front-line defense against the coronavirus

The scent is clean and unmistakable. As most City employees (the ones who aren't telecommuting) walk into their workplaces each morning, they are greeted by the sharp but reassuring smell of disinfectants. The cleansers are being used by a small but determined group of City custodians. Each day they work to fend off the invisible but formidable coronavirus that has dominated our conversations and lives the past few weeks.

Custodian cart“They are on the front line, making sure that everything in our buildings is clean,” Stephen Webber says of his seven-person custodial crew. Webber is head of the Building Maintenance Division of Public Works, which includes providing janitorial services in many City buildings.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the work done by custodians should be getting more attention and appreciation these days. The coronavirus is spread person to person, according to the Centers for Disease Control. An infected person who coughs or sneezes can transmit the virus to others who are within about 6 feet. The CDC says the coronavirus can survive for hours to days on a variety of surfaces, and cleaning and disinfection are among the best practices to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses like the one that causes COVID-19.

“We’re doing what we always have been doing,” Webber says of the City’s cleaning and disinfection regimen. Because of the coronavirus, he says City custodians are now more “detail oriented” and clean more frequently. “If we used to clean bathrooms once or twice a day, we’re doing them three or four times a day,” Webber says. “We’re paying even more attention to door handles and high-traffic areas.”

Kathy at handrailIn addition to the door handles and knobs, custodians armed with disinfectants are diligently cleaning water fountains, bathrooms, and kitchen areas of City buildings. They are mopping floors more frequently. Elevator buttons, vending machines and anything else touched frequently by human hands need to be wiped down several times a day.

Webber says the decision to close most City buildings to the public effective March 19 reduced foot traffic but not the amount of work done by custodians. “We’re cleaning just as much, if not more,” Webber says. “We have to maintain a constant level of defense against the virus.”

Crews start cleaning at 7 a.m., before most 8-to-5 employees show up. “We’re kind of like church mice,” Webber jokes. “We come in, we do our thing and we leave. It’s not that we don’t want to be seen; we don’t want to be in the way of people doing their jobs.”

Consumers know that retailers can’t keep enough toilet paper and hand sanitizer on the shelves these days. Webber says the demand/supply crunch is also hurting workplaces, making it hard to get enough hand soap, paper towels, toilet paper and cleaning supplies for City buildings. And custodians also need disposable gloves to wear on the job. So far, the City has been able to get the products it needs.

DisinfectantSome City departments and buildings have their own custodians. Parks and Recreation employees clean Gastonia’s community centers, park restrooms, playgrounds and picnic shelters. Parks Director Cam Carpenter says his department’s landscaping and recreation employees are working together to make sure parks facilities are cleaned and sanitized during the coronavirus pandemic.

Fire Chief Phil Welch says firefighters are the custodians at all City fire stations. Likewise, employees of the City’s three wastewater treatment plants serve as the custodians. Wastewater Treatment Division Manager Stephanie Scheringer says all areas of wastewater plants are being cleaned twice per shift, and all plants operate 24 hours a day. At the water treatment plant, also open 24 hours a day, the plant’s employees are all pitching in to keep the facility clean and safe, according to Water Treatment Manager Ed Cross. And Transit employees, part of Community Services, are cleaning City buses as often as hourly or after each trip.

Webber, of Building Maintenance, says he is incredibly proud of his janitorial staff and the work they are doing, especially during the pandemic. “They tend to be overlooked,” he says of his custodians. “It’s such an unsung job. People forget how much work goes into cleaning a bathroom. It’s just taken for granted.”

The seven City of Gastonia custodians who work for Building Maintenance are:

  • Jamal Hatten, Field Supervisor who works at City Hall and wherever needed
  • Joe Howell, Transit Center
  • Debra Lawson, Police Department
  • Kathy Moore, Equipment Services and City Hall
  • Pamela Pruitt, Police Department
  • Millie Turas, Municipal Operations Center
  • Renee Williams, Garland Center

Hatten took over as field supervisor earlier this year, when David Truett retired after more than 30 years working for the City. “David left some big shoes to fill,” Webber says. “But Jamal has stepped right in and is doing a great job.” Webber compares it to the Green Bay Packers when quarterback Aaron Rodgers took the field after the Brett Favre dynasty. “Jamal has the personality, the professionalism and the work ethic,” Webber says. “He is balancing everything from arranging staffing to ordering supplies without missing a beat.”

There’s an old saying that cleanliness is next to godliness. And if the City’s vigilant custodians can help keep employees safe from the coronavirus, some might say that they are angels.

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Gastonia, N.C., just minutes west of Charlotte, is one of the area’s best places to live and work with an ideal combination of location, size and livability. Gastonia is the largest of Gaston County’s 13 municipalities and one of the largest cities in the Charlotte metropolitan area. Selected as an All-America City three times, Gastonia’s desirable quality of life is the result of its beautiful natural surroundings, friendly neighborhoods, responsive government and vibrant business environment.










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Gastonia, NC 28052