The embattled Orange County Fire Authority is set to nearly double its $100,000 contract with the public relations firm helping to control the agency’s messaging as it contends with a series of high-profile scandals.

In March, the board contracted with Lake Forest-based Communications LAB in the midst of an Orange County District Attorney’s office investigation into $1.7 million in billings by the Fire Authority for hazardous materials inspections that were never performed.

And things have only gotten worse for the agency since.

In June, an audit by Management Partners Inc. found a “lack of accountability” at all levels of the Fire Authority; and this month, Voice of OC published accounts of issues involving alcohol and inappropriate behavior by high-level officials at the agency. 

Later that month, Fire Chief Keith Richter announced his retirement, effective Aug. 29.

Making matters more complicated is Communications LAB has been at the center of another recent controversy involving Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who serves on the Fire Authority board.

Spitzer’s supervisorial office had the firm – owned by his campaign consultant Arianna Barrios — hired with taxpayer money to promote a crime victims memorial, Spitzer’s pet project. The county halted a $25,000 payment to Communications LAB until Spitzer agreed to use his office budget to pay for the work.

At the Fire Authority, Communications LAB has been expected to help restructure the agency’s “corporate communications department,” help board directors and managers develop a messaging plan, and lobby elected officials to support the agency’s policy initiatives, among other duties, according to the contract’s scope of work.

But many of those duties were added to a revised scope of work approved in April, with no budget increase. And so far, $69,951 – almost 70 percent of the contract’s budget – has been spent in three months, a staff report states.

With the contract amendment, OCFA officials are proposing shifting from an hourly to a monthly fixed fee as a method to keep costs down. Under the new agreement, Communications Lab would receive $15,000 for July, and 13,500 per-month through March, 2015, contract documents show.

The contract’s total cost is not to exceed $192,952.

OCFA’s executive board committee was scheduled to consider the contract at its Thursday meeting. However, action was postponed for 30 days to allow the agency’s new in-house communications director, Sandy Cooney, to review the agreement.

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