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St. Helens mulls shift in communications position

In an effort to help save money in 2012, the St. Helens city council is considering not renewing its public relations administrator's contract when it expires in August.

The change would save the city about $20,000 a year. City officials say the duties currently handled by Amber Dennis - include issuing press releases and producing the city's newsletter, the Gazette - would be shifted to another employee.

'Over the past year, with the city budget and general fund issues we've had, [we have] elevated the review of whether the city can accomplish the same expectations by doing [communications work] in house,' said City Administrator Chad Olsen.

Olsen said he believes the communications work would cost about $5,000 a year.

At a city council work session Wednesday, March 16, Olsen spoke of the pros and cons of shifting the position to a current employee, who would be responsible for a number of duties, including writing press releases and public notices, producing informational flyers, interviewing staff and visiting the field to take photos of city projects.

'There would be accountability,' Olsen said, adding that there would also be better operational knowledge of the city. 'The big concern would be having a qualified employee subject to turnover.'

City Councilor Phil Barlow was one of two councilors to voice concern about turning the position over to an in-house employee. The other was City Councilor Keith Locke, who said he felt the city should put out a new request for proposals for the position, 'just to see what's there.'

At the work session, Barlow said he was concerned about how objectively a city employee would be able to write about certain city issues, such as layoffs.

Barlow explained in an interview after the work session that he was on the fence about the issue because he ultimately wants to make cuts to the city's budget.

'I feel that we're going into a pretty … delicate situation,' Barlow said. 'However the information is given to the public, we don't want to give the impression we're skewing the information.'

For her part, Dennis has served in a dual capacity as the city's communication services contractor and tourism director since 2008 and receives an overall salary of $65,000. The additional $40,000 comes from the city's tourism fund.

Her contract with the tourism committee was also extended last year through the summer of 2011.