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What Budget Deficit? City Hall Boosts Spin Doctor’s Contract $170K

Despite a $34 million Santa Clara City deficit and zero revenue from Levi’s Stadium, City Hall paid San Francisco spin doctor Sam Singer a combined $10,500 for Stadium Authority and City PR work in 2020 and upped his contract for Stadium Authority work almost 200 percent.

In June, the Council approved a $170,000 extension to Singer’s previous $100,000 worth of contracts with the Stadium Authority. Singer also has a $100,000 contract for City communications — bringing his total contracts with Santa Clara agencies to almost $400,000.

In August, Singer invoiced the Stadium Authority $7,750 for work that included [singer SA Invoices 9-2020]:

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  • Reviewing legal proceedings and motions
  • Reviewing “possible media contacts,” and building and “editing” a media list and researching “communication opportunities re: stadium budget”
  • Directing, writing and reviewing Stadium Authority press releases
  • Reviewing “drafts of mayor, city attorney, city manager messaging for legal victory [and]…provide strategy and edit materials”
  • Providing “counsel” “stadium budget issues” and materials
  • Reviewing “public policy issues in Santa Clara with Deanna Santana”

Singer also invoiced the City in August for $2,800 for “listening,” to meetings, “strategy and recommendations” about COVID-19 communications and economic recovery, “public information opportunities,” and conversations with another marketing consultant, Circlepoint Communications. [singer city invoices 9-2020]

Circlepoint was hired last December on a $100,000 contract to “counter negative information” and “educate the media.” To date, it doesn’t appear that the City has paid any Circlepoint invoices yet, according to Bills and Claims reports attached to Council agendas.

In June, the Council’s Economic Development, Marketing and Communications committee — Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Council Members Debi Davis and Kathy Watanabe — recommended moving other communications into COVID-19 communications. The committee also recommended inviting Circlepoint to attend committee meetings. [Economic Development Communications and Marketing Committee Minutes of February 19 2020].

 

Fingers in Every City Hall Pie

Sam Singer isn’t just any PR agency. He provides what could be called a 360-degree service: writing the PR, promoting the narrative, and keeping friendly politicians in power.

One of Singer’s biggest clients is Chevron’s Richmond oil refinery; which has had more than one industrial accident — for example, the 2012 fire that released toxic fumes and sickened thousands.

Despite this, Singer helped keep a Chevron-friendly City Council in power — the effort assisted Singer’s Chevron-funded Richmond Standard website, which purports to be a local news publication.

In 2018, Santa Clara City Hall signed two contracts with him, each $100,000, one for the Stadium Authority and the other for the City. Some believe that the amount was deliberately set to the amount at what the City Manager could sign without Council approval.

Singer’s hiring followed a botched 2017 PR contract with Pete Hillan — now working for Singer — that included paying Hillan $5,000 for writing an op-ed to be bylined by Mayor Gillmor, which she said Hillan hadn’t written but nonetheless approved paying for.

Invoices show Singer closely involved in almost every City news release and PR campaign in 2018. He shaped positioning and communications strategy; developed “messaging and talking points,” presentations and public statements; and wrote news releases and other city written communications.

Singer’s Santa Clara City spin portfolio included, according to his invoices:

  • 2018’s Measure A with its illegal multi-member districts and complicated voting scheme
  • “Political contributions actions”
  • Salaries for the police chief, city clerk and elected officials
  • The Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce and the Santa Clara Convention Center
  • “Upcoming public policy matters” including “legal” and “new ordinances”
  • Dark money
  • “FPPC calls”
  • Press releases for State of the City presentations

His Stadium Authority activity included “stadium issues,” the Levi’s Stadium curfew, the College Football Playoffs, the Levi’s Stadium issues survey, the Stadium Authority budget and the stadium rent reset dispute.

Although he wasn’t as active in 2019, the City paid Singer almost $3,000 to “review and monitor news media” and $875 for a phone call with City Manager Deanna Santana. [singer 2019 invoices]

 

Best Use of Money?

Santa Clara’s PIO is already the highest paid in California.

In 2019, the City’s PIO earned $228,000 plus a $59,000 benefits package.

Sunnyvale’s PIO had a salary of $134,000 and a benefits package of $89,000, for a total pay package of $224,000. The State of California’s Director of Communications took home a total compensation package of $202,000.

Some say that Santa Clara needs to examine its spending of half a million dollars for outside PR help.

“Each and every contract with our vendors and consultants should be on table for review to cut or save money for our City,” said Council Member Raj Chahal in an email.

“These are tough times and if there is an overlap of any services which the city staff can fulfill, they should not be outsourced. Our priority should be to have more efficiency with a lean budget. Instead of layoffs of our employees we should consider reducing our spending on outside consultants.”

The City says that the PR services are essential for the City right now.

“In 2019, the City Council prioritized communications as a priority for enhancement,” said Santa Clara PIO Lenka Wright in an email.

“The consultants [Singer, Circlepoint and 3Fold] were brought on to supplement staff resources by supporting proactive communications and marketing of City activities, services and programs.

“The use of consultants has helped assist with work priorities as our staffing and workload demands change,” she continued. “This is the case with preparing for my departure and resulting vacancy, and allows for the City Manager to work with three agencies based on their unique skills and availability.”

 

Spin Master? Maybe Not 

Singer’s frequently hyped spin mastery hasn’t worked so well in Santa Clara.

His communications strategy for Measure A couldn’t pull the proposition over the finish line despite omitting any discussion of the central proposal — the ranked choice single transferrable vote method of vote-counting.

He’s failed to sell the City’s narratives to news outlets. Instead of making friends of the press — one of the things PR is about — during Singer’s tenure, Santa Clara City Hall has virtually declared war on South Bay news publishers.

And Singer’s contracts brought the City trouble when their irregularities became the subject of a 2019 grand jury investigation into the City’s procurement procedures.

Unable to get the necessary documents from the city for the investigation the Grand Jury instead produced a scathing report on the City’s compliance with the California Public Records Act.

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