The Mayor of La Crosse pulled back a proposal recently, after some city council members and constituents brought up a potential issue with it.
If only the city had a public relations team.
Well, turns out that’s kind of the issue. Mayor Mitch Reynolds wants to hire a public relations team to better convey information about what La Crosse City Hall is doing.
The contract that was on Thursday’s Finance and Personnel (F&P) committee agenda was to hire a local PR group on a one-year contract for $62,700. The issue some had is that the group was co-founded by someone that volunteered on Reynolds’ mayoral election campaign.
Reynolds said he pulled the request from the agenda after conversations with some city council members and constituents.
“What I want to make sure is, every time we have communication with City Hall, it’s not a situation where people are questioning the validity of that communication,” Reynolds told WIZM. “So, I thought it would just be best to pull back at this point and then come up with a strategy to move forward in a better way.”
Reynolds believes having a PR group work on city matters right now — as opposed to weeks or months from now — is important with things like $22 million coming from the American Rescue Plan Act to the city for distribution. And, perhaps items like what’s on Thursday’s F&P committee agenda.
Whether it would be part of a PR team to convey this messaging, Thursday’s agenda has some big price tags attached to items, including resolutions for up to $5.85 million, $3.62 million, $1.02 million, $1.17 million and $3.43 million for, what’s called “general obligation bonds” for financing everything from the fire department to the library to street repairs.
For example, would a PR team better convey Resolution No. 21-1223 on the agenda?
Longtime city council member Doug Happel did try and explain on La Crosse Talk PM some of the contracting and hiring processes, as well as these agenda items.
“Most of what’s on the agenda is approving — talk about bids — putting out for bids for the loans we take out for capital improvement,” Happel said. “We take out loans for that. What we’re doing is putting out bids, in this case, for banks or investment companies. … They put out a bid for that, and whoever comes back with the best bid, the lowest rate is the one that’s probably going to get selected.”
Happel laughed when asked if any city council member or other government officials have ties to any of the banks or investment firms that would be bidding on these items, and would need to abstain from the process, since that’s what was at issue with Reynolds’ now pulled proposal.
City Council President Barb Jansen also laughed at the idea, but did have a take on that potential situation.
“Yeah, I don’t have the desire to start searching for that,” Jansen said. “You have to rely on people to be honest. We all sign a code of ethics. If somebody were to have huge investments, they probably should be talking to the legal department and asking if this is something they should vote on.”
Both Happel and Jansen are on the F&P committee.
Happel said he didn’t have a problem with the proposal and the situation was not a disqualifier. There are no requirement for a bid process for service agreements, only public works projects.
Jansen said Reynolds was planning on pulling the proposal as of Aug. 25, and made official last Monday. Conversations about having a PR team though, have been ongoing, she added.
“He had this thought and passed it by a few people, and they were like, ‘Yeah, we have to do something,'” Jansen said. “Now that he’s pulled it, that’s an opportunity for more discussion.
“I think, though, that it’s important to send it out to anybody … and maybe even before we get to that point, a little more discussion about what that PR firm is going to do and what can our current staff can do,” Jansen added. “Looking at the proposal, I think there are some things that our current staff could do and maybe we could save some money there, as well.”
If Jansen’s idea of having staff do added PR work doesn’t happen, the process to hire a PR firm may go to what’s called a Request For Proposal (RFP), where more groups could apply. That may be more timely. It could also be more costly.
Reynolds said one group came in over $700,000, while River Travel Media was at $62,700.
The RFP process, though, isn’t simply about taking the lowest bid. Think of it as a job interview for a business, as opposed to a person. Whatever the process, whether it was a mayor’s proposal, an RFP or hiring a homeless coordinator — which the city is looking into — Happel said it all has to go through the city council.
“You see what the price is and what they can provide,” Happel said of the RFP process. “Then the staff makes a recommendation. If the council has a question about that, we ask it. But one way or the other, the council needs to approve it, because essentially all expenditures of city money ultimately go through the council. “
The city does frequently contract with service providers without an RFP or bid process taking place. Reynolds mentioned an environmental consulting group working on the PFAS issue on French Island right now that was hired without an RFP or bid.
Timing is, again, partly the issue, because of the important matters the city is working on — $22 million from the feds — and conveying that to the public. Bringing in a group that’s worked with the city before seemed logical, but the mayor can understand the hesitation.
“I absolutely could have handled this entire process better,” he said. “Withdrawing this legislation and setting a new strategy is simply a better way to move forward for the city.”