Questions surround County Commission's use of PR firm

Through a series of public records requests, Eyewitness News has learned the Vanderburgh County Commission has spent $4,318.25 so far this year on public relations-related services from an Indianapolis-based firm, McFarland PR and Public Affairs. According to Commission President Bruce Ungethiem, McFarland was recommended by Commissioner Cheryl Musgrave, who was apparently familiar with the firm's president when the two were working under then Gov. Mitch Daniels. 

Earlier this month, the County Commission unanimously approved the extension of a contract with McFarland into 2018. The contract is not to exceed $5,000. However, when Musgrave motioned to approve the agreement, it appeared to come as a surprise to Ungethiem. 

"this was a late adder [sic]," Ungethiem said. "I have not seen this agreement.

Musgrave replied, saying it stemmed from her desire to prepare for an upcoming trip to Washington D.C. with other county commissioners across the Hoosier State. Musgrave and  McFarland PR later clarified those statement, saying the preparation for the trip would only be part of the overall services that McFarland would provide if the contract was extended.

As part of her trip, which occurred this past Wednesday, Musgrave handed out documentation to other officials in attendance, Ungethiem said. The public relations firm also helped Musgrave establish some "talking points" while on the trip, Ungethiem said. Musgrave told Eyewitness News earlier this week some of the talking points including transportation and public health-related issues.

According to public records obtained by Eyewitness News, the commission entered into the contract with McFarland in early January 2017. The contract was not to exceed $5,000. Musgrave recommended McFarland, according to Ungethiem. 

"Cheryl, having been in Indianapolis, knew [the firm's president Stephanie McFarland] who did that kind of work," Ungethiem said.

In the late 2000s, Stephanie McFarland stated in an email that she and her staff were, "temporarily assigned to work with the state's Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF) for a few months (pre-Cheryl) while the agency sought a new public information officer and commissioner. That was nearly a decade ago. Cheryl hired her own communication staff shortly after becoming commissioner."

Ungethiem said the initial rationale for McFarland's services stemmed from the commission's desire to find a firm with ties to Indianapolis. At the time, the commissioners wanted to convince state lawmakers to approve a bill that would help fund jail expansion through the local option income tax. The commission wanted a unified message, Ungethiem said. 

According to the invoice from January 2017, McFarland billed the county $1,042 for its work on the project, which included services like materials development, media management and public relations consultations. There was also a $300 retainer. 

The proposed legislation, House Bill 1487, died without a hearing. 

While it appears the contract with McFarland was initially intended to help the commission's lobbying efforts at the statehouse, the public relations firm worked on numerous other projects, according to company invoices.

In February, McFarland billed the county for services regarding the county's human relations ordinance. The firm also billed the county for developing a news release, a media call and public relations consultations ahead of the sky bridge dedication. On February 14th, the new Hilton DoubleTree hotel opened. After city officials cut the ribbon on the hotel, county commissioners cut the ribbon on the skybridge connecting the hotel to the Old National Events Plaza. 

February's invoice totaled $700. According to invoices obtained by Eyewitness News, the county commission has paid for some type of service from McFarland every month through September. October's invoice has not been submitted yet. 

In July, records show McFarland was involved in a litany of local efforts. According to the invoice, the public relations firm distributed news releases regarding a hearing on a particular roadway, the Community Crossings grant and achievements at Burdette Park.

McFarland also drafted and edited news releases after a 5-year-old tragically drowned at Burdette Park later that month. According to the invoices, the incident was titled, 'Burdette Park crisis.' McFarland also billed the county for handling media inquiries and a public relations consultation about the boy's drowning. July's invoice totaled $850.

In August, McFarland billed the county for two hours of work on a jobs fair news release to the tune of $200. The release, which was distributed by the commission's administrative assistant, was five paragraphs long. Three of the five paragraphs contained only one sentence. 

All told, the commission has spent more than $4300 on these services that some could argue could be handled by the commission's own administrative staff. 

"We don't have a PR or marketing person per se for Vanderburgh County," said Commissioner Ben Shoulders. "To some degree, we have to subcontract that out anyway. We felt like that this firm did a good job. Based on results and based on what we think they did a good job on, we were in a position where we thought we would renew them again."

Commission Ungethiem said he tries to refrain from using McFarland's services except for when its necessary.

"We use it on an 'as needed' basis," Ungethiem said.

Ungethiem also said there have been times in which Musgrave wanted McFarland to provide a service that he thought could be or should be done internally. Because Musgrave initially recommended McFarland and motioned to have the contract extended earlier this month, Eyewitness News repeatedly tried to contact Musgrave for comment.

Thursday morning, Musgrave answered the phone. After this reporter identified himself, Musgrave said she was driving and couldn't talk. She abruptly hung up the phone. Musgrave did not return calls for comment later in the day Thursday nor did she return calls on Friday.  

Ungethiem said McFarland provides the commission a way to convey a single message to other local and state leaders across the state. However, he said the service is only commissioned when the commission thinks it is necessary.

"The county doesn't have the same staffing level that [Mayor Lloyd Winnecke] has so we use [McFarland]," Ungethiem said.

The mayor's office has a director of communications position that is currently held by Ella Johnson-Watson. However, her duties stretch well beyond the realm of public relations, officials said. Additionally, both the police and fire departments have public information officers. The duties of those positions also extend beyond public relations, police and fire officials said.

All three positions have to be approved by the City Council as part of the budget process. The City Council also does not have a public relations staff.

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