U-T San Diego
February 21, 2013
by Christopher Cadelago 

Regional planning agency wants outside help for communications staff of 10

San Diego County’s regional planning agency is lining up its public-relations contracts for the next five years — at an estimated cost of $40 million.

The San Diego Association of Governments is interviewing dozens of PR firms for the on-call marketing and communications work.

SANDAG is responsible for tens of billions in long-range transportation and other planning. The public outreach will bring greater involvement of the public, a “value-added,” according to spokesman Colleen Windsor. She downplayed the estimated costs listed on agency documents.

“If you look at, ‘Gosh, they are going to spend $40 million,’ I would be alarmed as well,” Windsor said. “I can tell you as sure as I am breathing air right now we will not spend $40 million. But we had to provide ourselves capacity because this would be a five-year contract for the firms.”

SANDAG has a $1.3 billion annual budget that largely comes from state and federal allocations and a voter-approved county sales tax for transportation projects.

The agency employs 10 in-house communications and marketing staffers, six of them on limited terms. The annual communications budget is $1.6 million handling over 60 current projects.

The $40 million in outside PR would come on top of that.

The agency solicited firms in December and has received 64 applications for project-specific task orders — 44 for contracts up to $900,000, 14 for contracts ranging from $250,000 to $4 million and six for contracts ranging from $1 million to $25 million.

The PR consultants would be asked to develop and implement a variety of marketing, communications, and public outreach efforts relating to highway, rail and transit projects throughout their various design, environmental, and construction phases.

Sara Kent, program director at Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, was skeptical about the amount of money being proposed.

“To the extent SANDAG uses these outside resources to meaningfully engage the public, obtain feedback and inform their decisions, it could be useful,” said Kent, a board member at the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, which is in litigation with the agency over its long-range transit plan. “It seems an exorbitant amount of money compared to their reluctance to commit funds to drastically improve our light rail and bike transportation options — infrastructure San Diegans want.”

Marco Gonzalez, cofounder and managing partner of Coast Law Group, agreed that the devil was in the details.

“SANDAG has a long history of steering the public not just to be informed, but to be supportive of their projects and approvals without full information,” Gonzalez said.

Government agencies have increasingly relied on outside public-relations firms to help spread their messages, adding a layer of outreach to their growing ranks of in-house communicators.

U-T Watchdog calculated that the Port of San Diego has spent about $2.3 million on 10 different public-affairs companies over four years — at least one at a rate of $595 per hour.

Transportation projects often carry a PR component, for such purposes as informing the public about road closures. But some of those have been reined in of late.

In December, California Gov. Jerry Brown axed a $10 million PR contract for the Bay Bridge, including production of a commemorative book — saying it appeared excessive.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority in late 2011 dropped plans to re-up its PR contracts amid an uproar over the agency spending $7.2 million a year on them.

At SANDAG, officials expect to include a public relations component — often required by state and local governments — for a wide range of projects and programs, from trolley upgrades to its launch of bus-rapid transit throughout the region and work on Interstate 5 and Interstate 805.

One project slotted for public outreach is the Mid-Coast Corridor Transit Project to extend light rail service from the Santa Fe Depot in San Diego to University City.

PR firms would also be tasked with working on multiyear regional plans and bike projects and creating marketing programs for the Compass payment card, FasTrak toll collection devices and toll systems on I-15 and SR-125.

“As you know there is great benefit to involving the public in the decision-making process,” Windsor said. “We take that responsibility very seriously and it’s something that we do as a matter of course, in addition to having federal and state requirements of involving the public when we have megaprojects like the Mid-Coast or I-5.”

SANDAG officials emphasized that they want to hire more small PR firms in the process — to help support small businesses. Contracts are one to three years with an option for up to three more years. The maximum term is five years.

Santee City Councilman John Minto, an alternate board member at SANDAG, pointed to the high cost of print and other advertisement for his political efforts in justifying at least some of the SANDAG costs.

“Equating it to a simple (council) campaign, it’s outrageous how much I had to spend just on print media,” he said. “I can imagine if you are doing something countywide what that budget must be.”

Among the projects that the public relations firms will work on is the agency’s long-term transportation plan — challenged in a lawsuit by the Attorney General’s Office, Center for Biological Diversity, California Sierra Club and Cleveland National Forest Foundation.

A San Diego County Superior Court judge in December agreed with the litigants that the plan failed to comply with state environmental laws. SANDAG has appealed.

Jack Shu, a forest foundation board member, was critical of the agency’s defense of the plan in the media and said he doesn’t want to see public money going toward its promotion.

“All I can think of is they want to spend another $40 million so they can spin it right,” he said. “This is pretty sad.”

A list of finalist public-relations firms is expected to be sent to the agency’s executive director in the coming months for contractor selection. The agency’s board would not appropriate money for the consultants until the spending is approved as a component of a larger project or program.