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Damage Control 

S.F.'s Elections Department has been paying a team of PR consultants as much as $225 an hour to polish its tarnished reputation

Wednesday, Feb 27 2002
Last fall Tammy Haygood, director of the San Francisco Department of Elections, hired several outside consultants to perform damage control after her department was beleaguered by accusations of irregularities in the vote-counting process. Public records show that by the end of January, Haygood had paid $113,000 to three Bay Area firms to perform duties that included "further[ing] T. Haygood's credibility as a competent, selfless partner in the elections process."

For their efforts, these public relations professionals are being paid as much as $225 an hour, plus expenses.

Articles in the San Francisco Chronicle last week detailed many of the problems faced by Haygood, a lawyer who recently worked as a quality-control inspector in a diaper factory. Since she was appointed to the post overseeing city elections last summer, Haygood and her staff have committed a string of snafus, including losing 240 cast ballots and 200 unmarked ballots on Election Day in November. In a highly publicized incident, absentee-ballot box tops were found floating in San Francisco Bay a few days after a popular public power measure lost by a razor-thin margin. The Department of Human Resources' justification for hiring the public relations consultants without the benefit of advertising publicly for the jobs is that "the [Elections] Department has for the past year been under scrutiny from local and state authorities involving accusations of fraud and high turnover of key managers."

Hiring spin doctors is a new development at the Elections Department, which in the past handled all of its media activity internally. Most city departments in San Francisco do their own public relations. A spokeswoman for the county clerk of Los Angeles, who oversees elections in that much larger city, says her department does not hire outside public relations consultants. "We do it all in-house," she says.

Soon after Haygood was appointed by City Administrator Bill Lee last summer, she hired Lee's friend, Melissa Mooney, sole proprietor of M2PR of San Francisco, at Lee's suggestion. In her job proposal, Mooney promised to target Haygood's critics, the media, and the voters -- in that order -- with a series of "simple messages" such as, "The right to vote is a sacred privilege and the very backbone of our way of life." After the proposal was submitted to Haygood, one of Mooney's suggested messages was struck out: "The San Francisco Department of Elections guarantees that every vote will be counted accurately."

Mooney received $20,393 for three weeks' work "reviewing [the election] Web site for media accessibility, distributing press releases, assembling press kits, [and] managing on-site media activity," according to her invoice. Mooney declined to explain why these tasks are worth $140 an hour, or why she charged the city $393 for the cost of commuting to City Hall from her home in Marin County, including bridge tolls and parking. (Commuting costs are not normally considered an "expense" in city contracts.)

A few days after the Nov. 6 election, amid accusations of fraud that arose after boxes of absentee ballots were left unguarded, Haygood got rid of Mooney ("She was not capable of doing the job," says Haygood). The elections chief then called on Cynthia MacKenzie to write speeches and press releases, set up meetings with newspaper editorial boards and appearances on television shows, and "mitigate negative publicity," according to MacKenzie's contract with the city. For her first two months of work, MacKenzie, who charged the city $140 an hour, was paid $41,263 from the General Fund. Her contract, which has a limit of $50,000, ends on March 31 unless it is amended by Haygood to allow her to continue.

Haygood says that MacKenzie, who joined MacKenzie Communications Inc. of San Francisco in 1989 but now operates her own company in Corte Madera, is an "intermediate-level" public relations consultant, which is why she was paid "only" $140 an hour. It turns out that Haygood wanted a "senior-level" consultant as well; she hired William Strawn, executive vice president of MacKenzie Communications, at the rate of $225 an hour. Haygood acknowledges, however, that most of the services provided by Cynthia MacKenzie and MacKenzie Communications overlap. Indeed, the lists of public relations "deliverables" required by their contracts are almost identical.

Both Strawn and Haygood say that MacKenzie Communications' work for the Department of Elections is capped at $50,000 per consulting contract. Strawn, however, has already billed the city for $52,211. He says he will continue to work for Haygood pro bono. Haygood says that both Cynthia MacKenzie (who also is at the current contractual limit) and MacKenzie Communications' Strawn will work free of charge through the March election. Cynthia MacKenzie did not return repeated telephone calls requesting comment.

Strawn says that Haygood is the spokeswoman for the department regarding his contract. He declined to comment on why he asked for, and received, an exemption from the city's ordinances that mandate city contractors and their subcontractors provide health and vacation benefits and pay $9 an hour to their employees. In his application for the waiver, Strawn wrote that he would do all of the work for the Elections Department by himself, thereby entitling him to the waiver. His invoices show, however, that at least three other MacKenzie Communications employees have worked on the elections project.

The "senior-level" work Strawn is providing to the city, at $225 an hour, included, in January: writing a letter to the editor from Haygood, which was published in the Chronicle; setting up a work area for a Chronicle reporter to review documents; arranging for the reporter to interview Haygood; and locating remarks made by Supervisor Aaron Peskin in the Board of Supervisors' online minutes.

Richard Shadoian, vice president of the San Francisco Elections Commission, says he is particularly surprised -- and unhappy -- that Haygood's public relations consultants are making $225 an hour for just sitting in the audience during commission meetings.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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