Sacramento city officials are paying a high-powered political affairs firm $10,000 a month to communicate the city's opposition to a plan to build two massive water diversion tunnels in the Delta.
City Manager John Shirey's office agreed to an eight-month contract with Mercury Public Affairs to assist in messaging through social media, op-ed writing and working with other interest groups that oppose the plan, said Randi Knott, the city's intergovernmental relations officer. The contract began this month.
The contract was approved through a no-bid process and without City Council approval because the total compensation will be less than $100,000, Knott said. If the contract needs to be extended past eight months – and becomes worth more than $100,000 – city staff will seek City Council approval for an extension, she said.
The city employs its own roster of media relations staffers and contracts with lobbyists. But Knott said city officials needed more firepower in the water battle.
"We felt it was important for us to have the same powerhouse resources that others do to get our message out," Knott said. "We needed the best resources available and sometimes you need to go outside to do that."
Knott acknowledged that the city is "late to the game" in voicing its opposition to Gov. Jerry Brown's $25 billion Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which would divert water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to farms and cities in Central and Southern California.
Other organizations and public agencies that have already been active in opposing or supporting the governor's plan use external public affairs firms in their campaigns.
Well-known Democratic strategist Steve Hopcraft handles communication for Restore the Delta, which has worked to oppose the governor's plan on behalf of regional governments and water agencies.
Southern California water interests supporting the plan have their own help. Fiona Hutton & Associates, for example, has handled communications for the State Water Contractors for several years and also works with the Southern California Water Committee.
Roger Salazar, a managing director at Mercury and the firm's point person for the city of Sacramento's water tunnel contract, said he was "a little surprised the city had not been more active in this arena given the impact."
"Some folks have been asking where the city stands on this," Salazar said. "They've had a position, they just had not put it out."
The city's opposition wasn't publicly displayed until last month, when Mayor Kevin Johnson made critical remarks about the project at a groundbreaking event for a new water treatment plant north of downtown. The mayor followed that up with an opinion piece in The Sacramento Bee urging the state to explore alternatives to the water tunnel proposal.
While the public relations contract was issued without the city accepting multiple bids, Knott said the city manager's office "contacted just about every firm in town" before signing Mercury. She said these other firms either were working for Southern California water interests, organizations in Northern California or had a close relationship with interest groups on either side.
It didn't hurt that Mercury is well-known at City Hall, Knott said.
The firm – which has offices around the country, including shops in Sacramento, New York and Washington, D.C. – worked closely with the mayor's office in the successful effort to keep the Kings in town. Adam Mendelsohn, a partner at Mercury, is the chief spokesman of the new Kings ownership group.
As a result, Knott said, Mercury has "a good history with the mayor and council."