The Great DPU Consultants War is far from over.
That’s my prediction in the wake of an amazing Fresno City Council debate on fiscal responsibility and executive discretion.
First, here’s the necessary context.
The administration of Mayor Lee Brand last month brought a proposed deal to the council.
The Department of Public Utilities for years has hired the services of JSA, Inc. to spread the word about all the good things happening in DPU. Public Utilities handles things like water, sewer, residential trash and community sanitation.
In the old days, if I recall correctly, JSA stood for Jeffrey Scott Advertising. These days, JSA stands for Jeffrey Scott Agency. I think the name change is a signal that JSA does a lot more in the media world than just old-fashioned ads.
The most recent DPU-JSA deal (for five years) was inked in 2013. It’s now time for a new deal.
It’s the nature of public money that such deals aren’t done over a cup of coffee and a handshake. City Hall sends out a “request for proposal” – the proverbial RFP. Any firm can turn in a proposal. The mayor and his team pick the best pitch. The City Council gets the final say.
Public Utilities wanted a firm that could do a bunch of things – education campaigns, public outreach, media buys, public relations, sage advice in a complex and fast-changing world.
DPU Director Tommy Esqueda asked the council on Dec. 14 to award the new contract (three years, plus two one-year options) to JSA. The cost: $520,555 per year. In essence, a $2.6 million deal over five years.
Only two firms turned in what’s called “responsible” bids – proposals that met all of the RFP’s criteria. JP Marketing was the other legitimate competitor. JP Marketing, like JSA, is based in Fresno. Both firms have many years of experience.
JP Marketing’s bid: $436,955 per year. In essence, a $2.18 million deal over five years.
JP Marketing’s bid was $83,600 per year under JSA’s bid. JP Marketing’s bid was 16% less that JSA’s bid.
It took them 45 minutes, but council members finally voted 5-2 to reject the Brand Administration’s choice and award the contract to JP Marketing. Luis Chavez and Paul Caprioglio voted no.
There’s half of the context. The other half consists of each side’s argument.
In a nutshell, Esqueda (carrying the water for the Brand Administration) told the council that the JSA and JP Marketing pitches were reviewed by a seven-person selection committee. The committee consisted of six people employed in various capacities by City Hall and one official from Fresno State. Esqueda was not on the committee, but the committee’s recommendation went to Esqueda.
Both firms made strong presentations, Esqueda said. In the end, Esqueda said, the selection committee recommended JSA despite the higher cost. The reason: JSA’s long and successful track record in working with city officials.
The selection committee’s report stated that JSA “has the strongest credentials for this project and will provide the best value based on their high level of professionalism, highly successful past work done for DPU, their creative approach to marketing this project, and their ability to reach the targeted customer base.”
The selection committee described JP Marketing as a “close second.” But, the committee added, “we determined that parts of their marketing approach were not consistent with the City of Fresno’s strategic public information outreach and vision.”
There you have the Brand Administration’s initial argument. Sure, the Administration said, $83,600 in one year and $418,000 over the course of five years is a lot of extra ratepayer money to shell out. But, we sense that JP Marketing just can’t get in step with our “strategic public information outreach and vision.” We prefer JSA. Since we’re the ones who have to work with the winner, the public and its money are best served in the long run by awarding the contract to JSA.
If there’s ever been a “fat pitch” for that Murderers’ Row of political sluggers called the City Council, this was it.
Garry Bredefeld was the first to hit it out of the park. He said the RFP calls for awarding the contract to the lowest responsible bidder. He said everyone agrees that JP Marketing is a responsible bidder. He said everyone agrees that $436,955 is less than $520,555.
“I would suggest that we should be awarding (the contract) to JP Marketing,” Bredefeld said.
Bredefeld made the motion. Clint Olivier made the second. Later in the debate, Olivier essentially told the Administration: You’re adults; you can learn to work with JP Marketing.
That is the gist of each side’s argument. To be sure, there was a lot of talk after Bredefeld yielded the floor. Much of the thunder revolved around the nature of the RFP (did JP Marketing know that the selection committee placed great value on a bidder’s familiarity with City Hall’s “vision”?) and the selection committee’s method of scoring (did this “vision” thing count for more than $83,600 a year?).
The answers were “no” to the first question and “yes” to the second. Not that they mattered much. Just about everyone in the Brand Administration must have sensed the second the two bids were opened that a recommendation to the council for JSA would be dead on arrival. Legislators who want long careers in public service typically don’t like to burn $418,000 of ratepayer money in open session for a “vision” thing.
(To be clear, Caprioglio said he trusted Esqueda’s judgment, hence his no vote. Chavez voted no because he wanted to kick the whole mess down the road for a few weeks.)
So, it would seem that the new era is upon us. JSA is out of City Hall; JP Marketing is in.
I don’t buy that scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if JSA in short order is back in the DPU saddle. JP Marketing will be there, too. But the DPU public relations show going forward will be an alliance of sorts. (Let me emphasize that this is strictly my guess; no one at City Hall has given me a hint that I’m on the right trail.)
My thinking is this (based in part on comments at the Dec. 14 council meeting):
· Water reliability and water infrastructure will be extremely high policy priorities for the Mayor in 2018.
· Exactly what Brand has in store for water infrastructure is still to be determined. The Recharge Fresno and recycled water projects are already underway. But the next phase of water infrastructure is just ahead of us.
· Water infrastructure is expensive. Ratepayers foot the bill.
· City Hall is gearing up this summer to create (by 2019) a new set was residential and commercial water rates (perhaps for five years). Ratepayers through the long Proposition 218 process have a huge say in whether the city’s proposed rates live or die.
· Fresno went through about two years of agony to get the last set of water rates in place for Recharge Fresno. From a messaging standpoint, mistakes were made early in the game. Lessons were learned and adjustments made. City Hall was finally able to convince ratepayers that it was in their best interests to part with a considerable chunk of change to modernize our water infrastructure.
· JSA marched with DPU and the Swearengin Administration through that trial. Brand was on the City Council. He saw all that went into that success.
· DPU does a lot of public outreach. There are many education and public relations chores to be done. For example, someone has to get the momentum going for the toilet rebate program. And someone has to strategize on the all-important Proposition 218 campaign for the upcoming water rate schedule.
· By recommending JSA to the council, the Brand Administration was acknowledging that DPU’s treasury had $520,555 per year over the next five years to pay the bill. JP Marketing got the deal at $436,955. That means the DPU treasury now has an extra $83,600 per year over the next five years that, in theory, could be spent in a different manner on education-public relations.
· City officials made it clear to both JSA and JP Marketing that the winner wasn’t guaranteed to get enough work to earn the full amount of its bid. If, for example, DPU has only $300,000 of work per year for JP Marketing, well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
· Brand in his second year in office (and with Bredefeld a near-constant thorn in his political side) can’t afford a major debacle like the last 218-water rate campaign.
· Some in the Brand Administration don’t care who handles PR for the toilet rebate program. But they really want JSA to be at the heart of the next 218-water rate campaign.
· Strong mayors in Fresno don’t like losing. They don’t mind taking a second shot with the council, especially when they first do a little closed-door lobbying.
I understand that officials from the Brand Administration and JP Marketing will be meeting on Thursday.