A while back, I noticed that Durham County spent $28,000 on a PR consultant to help with what an official called “a tidal wave of unexpected media attention” after the contested Nov. 8 election.
That sounded like a lot, so I looked into it. Requested records, reviewed 600-plus pages of often duplicative emails, asked a lot of questions. What follows is what I found.
Deborah Craig-Ray is one of County Manager Wendell Davis’s top lieutenants. On Nov. 10 at 1:24 p.m., Ray sent a succinct email to Brian Francis, a PR professional in Charlotte.
It reads: “I have a potential opportunity to be a fixer. It’s a PR consultant position with our Board of Elections. Let me know if you are interested.”
At 2:04, Francis answered: “Yes, potentially. Should I call you?”
A phone call was scheduled for 2:30. Then, according to an email at 3:03, the deal was basically done. My calculation: it took 99 minutes to make it happen.
Francis said he’d head to Durham the following week. He wrote, “As discussed, the rate will be $2,000 a day ...”
For eight hours, that comes out to $250 an hour.
An emergency contract was eventually put together without a single inquiry to other PR practitioners, even local ones.
Francis was retained to do media relations, analysis, communications counsel and strategy, and some writing.
For some reason, the hourly rate for Francis shows up later as $140 in a county manager’s office memo retroactively explaining the work to the Board of Commissioners.
Francis informed me recently that for 11 days in Durham (and “additional work” in Charlotte), he/his firm was paid the $28,000.
With an overall Durham County budget of around a half-billion dollars, the public information office (PIO) should have enough staff and talent in-house for this work.
After a detailed review, my conclusion: Francis Consulting Services was given a pretty sweet deal.
In an initial email, Francis wrote me: “I did not track hours/expenses specific to this contract.”
Further, “Hotel arrangements were made by the manager's office and paid for by them directly.”
Francis’ lodging included “seven or eight nights” at the downtown Marriott, the 21c Museum Hotel Durham, and the Hyatt Place near Southpoint.
The actual signed contract states, under “PAYMENT TO CONTRACTOR”: “an amount not to exceed … $28,000.”
If we estimate, perhaps generously, that Francis worked 10-hour days for 13 days overall (counting the drive to and from Durham three times), the $28,000 compensation would break down to $2,153.84 a day.
If Francis worked five days a week at that pace and rate for 52 weeks, his company (apparently composed of one person, Francis), would gross just under $560,000 annually.
By comparison, that would approach three times the $210,709 that County Manager Davis earns yearly.
If this instance is indicative of how the county handles consulting contracts under Davis, it doesn’t look like a tight ship.
The county emailed me its own version of Francis’ time: “over 200 hours.” But its estimate included “expertise,” which can’t be measured in hours.
Francis submitted a fairly broad, five-page closeout report. Two pages covered “Background” and “Engagement and Onboarding.”
Substantial portions were blacked out by the county for personnel privacy reasons.
On Dec. 7, county budget analyst Kim Connally also expressed concerns. She wrote, “(T)his is approved, but I’m a little uncomfortable with these unplanned expenses. Once the money runs out it runs out I guess.”
Two weeks later, County Commissioner Ellen Reckow wrote to a top county finance officer, copying all board members, after reading about the $28,000 expense in a newspaper report.
“Please provide the rationale for hiring a PR consultant,” Reckhow requested. “Also, who made the decision that there was a need? Who approved the expenditure? How much time was the consultant employed and what was the hourly rate of pay?”
She went on. “What firm was used?”
It seems news about the $28,000 tab for election communications counsel was news to the board.
Two days after Reckow’s missive, board chair Wendy Jacobs wrote to the same officer, “In the future, I would recommend that the manager brief the commissioners about this type of contract, … etc. when it is taking place.”
Based on the records I saw, Francis appears skilled in the PR field. County officials communicated to him in writing that they were happy with and grateful for his services.
At $28,000 for about two weeks of work, I sure hope so.