DuPage election panel to keep Reverse Spin — for now
Updated: September 10, 2012 12:37PM
WHEATON — Citing an extensive array of “unique challenges” that will converge in his office over the coming months, the director of the DuPage County Election Commission last week successfully argued for the retention of a controversial Wheaton public relations firm to provide communications support — but only until the polls close.
Bob Saar noted in a memo to the board of commissioners that heavy voter turnout is expected and said his energies will be needed in the office.
“I believe it is more beneficial for the agency that I keep my attention on administrative and election process matters that would be diluted by taking over and adjusting to new PR responsibilities,” Saar wrote. “In past presidential elections, the number of local and national press inquiries has been extremely numerous. Additionally, with the introduction of bilingual voting to the majority of voters, the new vote by mail law, and changes in all political boundaries due to the decennial reapportionment, will only serve to increase the number of press inquiries.”
Other variables making this round unusual, Saar wrote, include the entirely new makeup of the commission board; new commission staff members and the recent loss of two experienced employees who have not yet been replaced; recently enacted policy changes prompted by recommendations in the Crowe Horwath report on county agencies earlier this year; a newly launched website that may need tweaking by staff; and assorted changes in voting laws.
Commission chairwoman Cathy Terrill, who last month questioned the need to continue spending $3,000 monthly for the services of Reverse Spin, joined her two fellow board members in agreeing to fund the expense in the short term, because Saar “has a need functionally” to have access to the services through Election Day. Curry has worked for the commission since early 2008.
“After that, it will need to go through a regular process for approval: a. justify the need, and then b. follow the appropriate procurement and/or contract requirements,” Terrill said. “We are simply extending it because the director says he needs the help between now and the November election.”
Commissioner Art Ludwig supported the outlay, which is included in the commission’s yearly budget but comes up for approval every month.
“I think the stakes are high for this November’s election,” Ludwig said, later adding, “If there’s anything bad that’s going to happen, it’s going to happen between now and then.”
Newly appointed commission member Chris Hage also agreed it made sense to grant Saar’s request.
“Obviously we should revisit this in the future,” he said.
Residents and county officials on both sides of the political aisle have aired questions about Reverse Spin, which also works for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, at $4,000 monthly. Some note that firm partner Dan Curry’s extensive work in the political realm calls into question the impartiality of his services.
On a blog he wrote briefly in 2006 that took aim at an array of high-profile Democrats, Curry described himself as “a former newspaper reporter, editor and Democrat (sorry for the redundancy) turned Republican strategist.”
A document sent to Saar and the commission recently that itemized reasons the commission “needs PR help” cited as one example the flawed ballots that complicated the spring primary at some two dozen county polling places.
“Reverse Spin knew precisely which (news) outlets to contact first and in what order to diffuseemerging negative narratives,” the document stated.
The forest district hired Reverse Spin under a 12-month contract last November, when two of its administrative employees were let go after they allegedly misused taxpayer funds. The PR specialists were to supplement the district’s six-member public affairs department, help with media contacts and “be on call 24/7 for any future crisis situations,” the district said in a press release.
D. “Dewey” Pierotti, president of the district, said the existing staff members had their hands full publishing pamphlets and other materials highlighting district programs and the trails and preserves in the county system.
“The question came up: should we hire a full-time person just to handle the ‘public relations’ portion, or should we hire an outfit like Reverse Spin to come in and do it?” Pierotti said, adding that the cost of the two options appeared about equal. “The consensus over here by our current staff was if we hired someone it would take several months to get the person up and running ... We thought for a short-term shot it would be better to hire an outside agency.”
When the personnel matter was forwarded to the state’s attorney, he said, the board shifted Reverse Spin’s assignment to creating a website portal that would enhance access to the agency’s online information.
“Their major charge was that,” Pierotti said.
Curry said in an email Thursday that his company is proud of the work it has done for the agency.
“We have met numerous times with Forest Preserve District staff and had numerous phone conversations with them in order to help put in place the most far reaching transparency web portal of any forest preserve district in Illinois. Our work continues to finalize all the remaining pieces of that project,” he wrote.
Terrill also stressed that the extent of the company’s work for the Election Commission is limited — and more precisely now, with this week’s decision.
“This is only through the November election,” she said.