City, county polish images with public funds before election

City Hall

County officials said they wanted to polish the local government’s image by hiring a communications consultant for $55,000, but this week’s move with public funds happened months before voters will decide on two crucial sales tax proposals affecting the county’s financial future.
County supervisors at Tuesday’s meeting unanimously agreed to hire The Lew Edwards Group, based in Oakland, for an amount not exceeding $55,000 over two years. As stated in an agenda report, the proposed contract with the consultant includes such services as assisting the county in developing its message presented to the community, use of direct mail and other outreach mediums, and educational presentations for the public, according to an agenda for the meeting.
It’s a similar agreement agreed to last week by Hollister council members at a special meeting, seven months before city voters will consider a renewal to the 1 percent sales tax keeping the jurisdiction in the black. Hollister council members last week OK’d spending about $52,000 with The Lew Edwards Group for a communications push.
This week, supervisors and other county officials didn’t broach a specific reason for the timing of the hiring, or what prompted it, but Supervisor Margie Barrios during discussion on the item did mention how other counties have experienced success with “elections” using such a consultant.
“They’ve had a lot of success in other communities” with “education during elections,” Barrios said at Tuesday’s meeting.
There was no other mention of an election in the discussion, but it would be illegal for a government entity like San Benito County to use taxpayer funds to advocate for or against a ballot measure.
In June, countywide voters will decide on a proposed half-cent sales tax, Measure P, aiming to generate $240 million over 30 years for roads. In November, the county is preparing to float a 1 percent sales tax for unincorporated areas to help fill continued multimillion-dollar deficits to the general fund.
County officials hired The Lew Edwards Group after putting out two separate requests for proposals from potential consultants in the midst of discussions about a possible sales tax. Just last fall, supervisors escalated talks about placing a sales tax on the 2016 ballot.
In September 2015, the board considered hiring a consultant for polling and other services regarding the sales tax proposal, but decided against it. In October, the county did put out its first of two RFPs pursuing prospective communications consultants, as relayed by a county staff official in Tuesday’s meeting. In early November of last year, supervisors voted in support of officially floating a 1 percent sales tax on the 2016 ballot.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Board Chairman Robert Rivas said he didn’t hear Barrios talk about elections and he denied that the consultant’s hiring was related to them.
“The idea behind the item, and the consultant, was to help the county, basically, with outreach to local residents,” Rivas said.
He pointed to planned help with county communications on social media and through the mail, and compared it to the concept used by the City of Hollister with its short-lived public newsletter released in 2013.
“From what I can gather, this money isn’t going to be used to promote Measure P or any type of initiative on the ballot,” he said.
One speaker on the issue, Keith Snow, called the consultant services a “scam.” Snow has announced he will run a third consecutive time against Mayor Ignacio Velazquez in the November election.

Leave your comments