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PR firm contract should be troubling

As the city scrambles for nickels and dimes everywhere – well, everywhere but certain top salaries – it seems odd that the administration is forking over nearly $50,000 to quietly hire a communications consultant.

The Condon administration has signed a $45,900 contract with Desautel Hege Communications, the marketing and communications firm, to see if the city can improve how it speaks to citizens. The amount of money is eyebrow-raising, since it is the exact maximum for no-bid contracts – and pretty close to the amount that would require a City Council vote. It also comes at the very moment when staffing levels in crucial public services are being proposed for big cuts in the mayor’s budget.

The agreement with Desautel Hege calls for a review of the city’s communications with residents, including mapping the communication “touch points” across the city; forming committees for “input-gathering”; an audit of communications materials; and an evaluation of city Channel 5 and the city website.

“Additionally,” the company’s proposal reads, “we will be sure to explore (the) use of social media, as we understand the mayor is interested in utilizing that tactic.”

Hashtags, Mr. Mayor. Hashtags.

Right now – in the run-up to the budgetary ox-goring – it’s easy to see why folks might look askance at this. The Desautel Hege contract was signed not long before Condon proposed a budget that would eliminate 100 positions. Twenty-one of those are open spots in the police department meant to go dark permanently.

Given that, it was astonishing to learn this week that the mayor’s budget includes raises for administrators. Big ones. Raising salaries for administrators while casting a gimlet eye on the expenses of on-the-ground city employees – well, it ought to be simply too damn embarrassing for words. But it somehow never is.

Condon said Thursday that the marketing contract and the raises are both expenses that fit into a bigger picture of organizational change and improvement – and savings. He said that the raises for key administrators come in the context of more than $850,000 of cuts in deputy administrators and other positions, efforts that have left managers with bigger workloads, fewer deputies and longer hours. The changes are intended to pay off in greater savings over time.

Condon’s city administrator, Theresa Sanders, said similar consolidations and shuffling are going on throughout the city hierarchy. It’s not, she said, a simple case of cuts at the bottom and raises at the top.

As for the communications contract, Condon and Sanders said it’s a one-time expense intended to have a longer-term benefit. The city has some 10 people deployed in communications positions, but their efforts are decentralized and scattered; this is an attempt to bring in outside eyes and get advice on how to improve, Condon said.

The consultant’s contract showed up in my mailbox this week, leaked by someone who claimed to be a “concerned city employee.” This person attached a note, posing some questions: Doesn’t the city have a full-time press officer and full-time outreach officer, to say nothing of communications employees assigned to specific city departments? Is this really the best use of taxpayer money? How can we cut police officers, the arts, weights and measures, while spending money on PR so the mayor can look good?

That last one is particularly crucial, I think. The difference between public relations and open government is substantial; the former involves manipulation, craft and the goals of the advertiser, while the latter is devoted to citizen participation and the goals of the “audience.” The former would be a waste of money; the latter would be worthy.

Condon can make a decent case that he’s been trying to be open and communicative in the latter sense. He’s expanded contact with city residents in different ways, from an Ask the Mayor function at the city’s website to telephone town hall gatherings.

I do not think, as some do, that communicating with the public is a minor matter.

But, interestingly, there’s been a cone of silence and strategic preparation surrounding this particular communications effort. And you can sense – in the Desautel Hege proposal itself – the knowledge that it might be a touchy endeavor, to be carefully managed: “A consistent set of messages that articulate the process itself and the value to the City and taxpayers will be very important as we begin engaging audiences about the process. Two versions, one for internal and one for external audience, will be developed. These two messages versions should be created prior to engaging audiences so they may be used from the beginning.”

Hope I’m not jumping the gun here, but one of the messages might be this: The money is there, but only for the right things.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.