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Columbia County re-examines its PR needs

Eight-month public relations contract cost $23,000

Randy Sanders.After contracting with a public relations representative for nearly eight months, Columbia County commissioners are now reevaluating their plan for public outreach initiatives.

In March, Randy Sanders was hired as an independent contractor to act as a public information officer for the county. His PIO contract expired at the end of October. The commissioners hired Sanders without soliciting for applications or using a bid process.

The contract for services stipulated he would serve as PIO from March 6 to Aug. 31 at $30 an hour, with a $25,000 cap on the six-month contract costs. On Aug. 18, the public relations contract was extended until the end of October.

Since the contract took effect in March, the county has spent $23,130 on Sanders as of Oct. 15, according to Rohini Chand of Columbia County’s Finance Department.

During an Oct. 22 staff meeting, commissioners revisited the contract and “felt it would be more appropriate to go through the [request for proposal] process for these services,” according to minutes from the meeting.

Commissioner Tony Hyde said Tuesday, Nov. 4, that the board has yet to decide whether to make a public relations position within the county, use a part-time personal services contract again, or open up a bidding process for PR services.

“I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to have some kind of public information officer for sure, but we want to have a very defined job description,” Hyde said. “I think we do gain, any time we can get more information out to the public about how the county works ... the more that we can do that, the better.”

Hyde said the board did not open the PR position to other applicants in the lead up to hiring Sanders because it wanted to quickly put in place a public relations representative after hearing advice about public outreach at a conference. The hiring of Sanders occurred shortly after the commissioners’ attendance at a January public safety summit hosted by the Association of Oregon Counties in Curry County.

Hyde said the county needs a PIO at a time when securing funding for public safety is crucial.

“Part of the problem with not getting the public engaged with sufficient funding for public safety is because we’re not getting the story out,” Hyde said. “We’re not communicating the way we should be.”

In addition to Hyde’s interest in having someone tell the county’s “story,” he said he’s particularly interested in having someone who can bolster the county’s web and social media presence.

According to the public relations contract, Sanders was expected to “meet with the Board of Commissioners and prioritize/create/execute all communications and media relation assignments, write articles, write press releases, meet with reporters, create and manage all communication and media relation projects, schedule and conduct town halls, create and maintain all social media including blogs/Twitter/Facebook etc. and promotional images.”

Sanders was largely responsible for posting content to the county’s Facebook page. Many of the posts contained Sanders’ personal, copyrighted photographs.

In one entry related to a recent coffee chat with county commissioners, Sanders announced that the news media was not in attendance. That post was later deleted from the page.

Posts to the Facebook site were still being made as recently as Wednesday. Hyde said Sanders was doing it “pro bono” with permission.

Before taking a temporary position with the county, Sanders was instrumental in forming a citizens advocacy group earlier this year to aide an effort to place a jail levy measure on the May ballot. He teamed up with St. Helens City Councilor Susan Conn to collect petition signatures for the measure.

Though the signature gathering effort was not sufficient to have the levy initiative placed on the ballot, the county commissioners took it as a sign of public interest in revisiting the jail funding issue and used their authority to place it on the ballot.

Voters approved the three-year, $7.07 million levy after a similar initiative had failed in 2013.

Sanders agreed to stop his work with the levy campaign once he took the public relations position.