A consulting firm that the city of Bend didn’t select to do polling and public relations for a possible $100 million transportation bond measure is questioning how the city chose the firm it did.
In explaining their decision to choose Barney & Worth Inc. over Hubbell Communications for a $108,000 public relations contract the Bend City Council approved Wednesday, city employees described some trepidation over the involvement of a Hubbell employee, Bend director Erin Foote Morgan, with the city’s unsuccessful gas tax measure a few years ago.
Barney & Worth and DHM Research, the company Barney & Worth intends to delegate polling work to, were involved with the process that led up to the gas tax measure. The city and Hubbell differ on what that involvement entailed.
“If their concerns were that they don’t want to repeat the same mistakes they made in the gas tax, it’s strange to me that they’d hire the exact same firm that worked on the gas tax,” said Chris Edmonds, a principal at Hubbell Communications.
Hubbell Communications has operated in Portland for about 15 years and expanded to Central Oregon last fall, hiring Foote Morgan to run its Bend operation. Since then, the company has been eager to involve itself in the Central Oregon community, including by commissioning and releasing a study on community perceptions of growth.
When the city began soliciting pitches to develop and market a transportation bond measure, Hubbell Communications, Barney & Worth and Portland-based Wright Public Affairs applied.
A scoring committee consisting of City Manager Eric King, Assistant City Manager Jon Skidmore, Chief Financial Officer Sharon Wojda, Long-range Planning Manager Brian Rankin, Engineering and Infrastructure Planning Director Tom Hickmann, Communications Director Anne Aurand and Senior Project and Policy Analyst Susanna Julber reviewed the applications and interviewed representatives from Hubbell and Barney & Worth.
Everyone but King, who picked Hubbell, gave Barney & Worth the highest score during an initial ranking. After the interviews, Barney & Worth was the unanimous choice.
In handwritten comments, members of the city’s team described being impressed with Barney & Worth’s plans to engage with college students, translate its outreach material and work with community groups. Some also listed concerns about Hubbell, including a perception that it was dismissive of the citywide committee working on the transportation plan, questions about a team member who wasn’t included in Hubbell’s proposal and the strategy to reach younger voters.
“There were some other concerns around their approach,” King said.
Government employees can’t advocate for or against ballot measures, so it will be up to elected city councilors, committee members and community leaders to push for the bond measure that would result from the transportation committee’s work. With a list of transportation projects that will cost more than $400 million to build, city officials are nervous about a repeat of the 2016 gas tax measure, which failed by a 2-1 measure.
The scoring committee considered the experiences of team members, King said.
DHM Research did a survey for the city in June 2015, and its results showed overwhelming support for a gas tax. The individual who did that polling no longer works for DHM Research and won’t be involved this time around, King said. Polling this year will do more testing of negative messaging about the proposal than the 2015 survey, he said.
Foote Morgan, who was the executive director of Bend 2030 during the gas tax discussions, advised the City Council in July 2015 to avoid scheduling a vote during the May 2016 primary because a crowded Republican primary field would bring out more conservative voters. Bend 2030 also supported the gas tax.
Barney & Worth received a $19,000 contract to facilitate meetings of a street funding committee in September and October 2015 and prepare a memo detailing the committee’s recommendations for the City Council. The contract was solely for Barney & Worth to run the meetings and describe the committee’s work in a memo for the council, not to do any marketing or strategy.
Hubbell employees, including Foote Morgan, Edmonds and founder Ward Hubbell, described Barney & Worth’s work as more involved in emails this week. Ward Hubbell, in an email to King, said he felt like the firm was thrown under the bus and called the city’s decision “very unfair and frankly ‘unBendlike.’”
“I think you and your colleagues should be concerned about how your comments — intentional or not — were received and the impact it had on us,” he wrote.
“We do not necessarily need to be adversaries but I will not allow a false narrative like the one generated at that meeting to persist. That’s why I wrote the letter and if I have to do more to clear our good name, I will.”
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