Friday, September 04, 2009

California HSR encounters public relations (firm) woes

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Efforts to spotlight California's proposed $44 billion, 800-mile high speed rail project have encountered their own public relations problem. The California High-Speed Rail Authority Thursday delayed approval of a $9 million, five-year public communications contract after board members said they lacked sufficient information on the finalists, including a staff-recommended firm that has close ties to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Before the authority’s meeting, a three-member staff panel chose Mercury Public Affairs out of nine applicants for the contract. Two of the staff panelists work or have worked for Schwarzenegger: Jeffrey Barker was the governor's deputy communications director until Sept. 1;  Mike Bowman is Schwarzenegger's current deputy secretary of the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency. Mercury itself also has closel inks with the governor. In all, five of 18 staffers Mercury plans to use for the rail project have worked for the governor.

Authority board members said the two-page staff memo they received was insufficient to make a $9 million decision; some members said they wanted to see the contract finalists make presentations in a future board meeting.

“The staff report and recommendation here wouldn't be adequate in kindergarten,” said Richard Katz, a Schwarzenegger appointee to the board and a longtime advocate of passenger rail transit in the state. “There is no discussion of deliverables. There is no discussion of what our expectation is of them. I am assuming (staff) went through a rigorous process to get there. But I don't have anything to support that.”

Mercury Public Affairs is part of the Omnicon Group, a New York-based advertising, marketing, and corporate communications company. Mercury has California offices in Los Angeles and in Sacramento, the state capital.