by James A. Bacon
The McDonnell administration has agreed to pay a Washington, D.C., communications consultancy $289,000 to help win public support for the proposed Bi-County Parkway in Northern Virginia.
The details are laid out in a Scope of Services agreement obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Del. Robert Marshall, R-Manassas. The contract calls for Stratacomm to “engage the public and foster a deeper and wider understanding of the Bi-County/North-South Corridor and its benefits, laying a foundation of support for the subsequent steps of the project.”
Marshall said that to his knowledge it was unprecedented in the Commonwealth of Virginia for the state to use taxpayer dollars to hire an outside public relations firm to conduct a grass roots campaign in support of a highly controversial project still going through the public approval process. Said Marshall: “I’ve been in office 22 years. I’ve never seen anything like this. If it has happened, it has been very rare.”
The McDonnell administration has made it a top transportation priority to advance a North-South Corridor running along the western fringe of the Washington metropolitan area. The middle segment of that corridor, known as the Bi-County Parkway, is highly controversial. Citizens have packed public hearings in opposition, Republican members of the General Assembly have publicly denounced the project, and the Prince William County Board of Supervisors has backed off from providing its endorsement.
The Virginia Department of Transportation is required to go through public hearings and other steps as outlined in its Policy Manual for Public Participation in Transportation Projects. The Scope of Services agreement spells out how Stratacomm will supplement those hearings with “additional meetings, public interface and marketing activities” in accordance with the Communications, Consultation, Public Outreach and Community Engagement Plan.
Stratacomm describes itself as a “strategic communications consultancy that helps clients educate, persuade and motivate people to drive desired results.” One of the company’s areas of specialties is transportation projects. John Undeland, senior vice president and partner, is a former public affairs manager for the American Automobile Association. His corporate bio lists the $2.5 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge project across the Potomac River as the firm’s “flagship” project. “John’s navigation of the project’s public image steered it from being a magnet for controversy to a point of regional pride.”
Marshall objected to the expenditure of public funds to “lobby public officials to do something they don’t want to do.” He characterized the outreach to homeowners associations and civic groups as “propagandizing.”
“Transportation Secretary Sean] Connaughton has no business at all doing this,” Marshall said. “He ought to be ashamed of himself. This is stealing public money.”
According to the agreement, the outreach extends to elected officials, media, the traveling public, property owners, homeowners associations and civic groups and business groups. The initiative will focus on Bi-County Parkway positives, including “mobility and accessibility benefits,” “associated economic benefits,” and “safety improvements.” In coordination with state authorities, Stratacomm will develop a “comprehensive stakeholder database to track and manage stakeholder communication,” provide content for the project website, establish a point of contact for public inquiries, and assist in the development of fact sheets and a newsletter.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth, which has actively opposed the $400 million Bi-County Parkway, also took exception to the expenditure of public funds to influence the public. Said Executive Director Stewart Schwartz in a prepared statement:
We should expect VDOT to conduct objective studies and to fairly consider alternatives when evaluating billions of dollars in transportation expenditures. Yet for the BiCounty parkway VDOT hasn’t been objective and they never fairly evaluated an alternative to a highway in this corridor. They have steadfastly ignored community and preservationist concerns.
Rather than reevaluate their proposal, they have decided to pay a PR firm $289,000 to SELL the public and elected officials on the highway, using our tax dollars. …
It’s one thing to do outreach to encourage the public to participate in the study process and offer their input. That’s a legitimate use of tax dollars, but to use tax dollars to fund what amounts to propaganda campaign is another matter entirely.
While Marshall and Schwartz both regard the expenditure of public funds in this manner as inappropriate, neither could say if it was illegal. State law does prohibit local governments from expending public funds to influence the electorate on referenda. Governments can disseminate information but it must be “neutral.”
Bacon’s Rebellion left a message with Deputy Secretary of Transportation David Tyeryar asking why the administration hired Stratacomm and whether, in his view, the expenditure is legal. In his FOIA response to Marshall, dated Oct. 3, 2103, he noted that “as of this date, no invoices have been submitted and/or paid.”
An expense itemization attached with the agreement projected 500 hours of work by a senior vice president, presumably Undeland, at a billable rate of $250 an hour, for a total of $125,210. The agreement also would pay an account director for 390 hours of work at $210 per hour, as well as smaller sums for the work of other employees.There are currently no comments highlighted.