County supervisors are slated Tuesday to discuss extending a storm water pollution outreach contract to a communications firm with campaign connections to Supervisors' Chairman Todd Spitzer and whose rates have been questioned by Supervisor Shawn Nelson.
The firm was also at the center of controversy last year, in which an unauthorized $25,000 county contract was awarded for work on a crime victims memorial spearheaded by Spitzer.
Under the two-year, $1 million contract with Barrios & Associates, LLC, the company would run a public education campaign around encouraging residents to prevent water pollution.
The contract’s approval has been delayed twice, following questioning by Nelson over its price tag.
At the March 3 supervisors meeting, Nelson said he’s seen the contract come up for renewal several times in recent years, but has never seen the work product produced by the contractor.
“This is a big number. I’ve never even seen the materials, nobody’s presented them…I don’t even know what we do for $1 million,” said Nelson.
“I look at the rates for creative director of $175 an hour, and I just don’t understand it,” he added.
“I think the numbers are far too big, and I haven’t seen a result that corresponds with…a million dollar’s worth of contracts. So unless someone wants to bring this back and explain what we’re getting for our money, I think we’re overpaying.”
“Those are legitimate questions,” responded Spitzer, who has previously hired the firm’s owner, Arianna Barrios, as a campaign consultant.
“Is there some reason why - why would a supervisor sit here and say, ‘I’ve never seen the materials’ …and now that he’s said that I’m kind of like, I haven’t either,” said Spitzer. “That just seems odd to me.”
The county’s chief financial officer, Frank Kim, offered to have staff provide examples of Barrios’ communications to supervisors.
Barrios’ husband, Brian Lochrie – who also works for the firm – said Thursday that county staff has provided more information to supervisors and that his firm is available to answer any further questions from supervisors.
“We feel that the pricing is fair,” said Lochrie, adding that the creative director will likely be a minuscule part of the overall spending.
“I would say it’s probably less than 1 percent of our budget [that] would be going to a creative director, so it’s a very, very small number,” said Lochrie
The firm has earned staff’s recommendation, he added, through an extensive outreach campaign involving events, school programs, websites and media relations.
“We’ve done quite a bit for the program, and we’re proud of what we’ve done and we think we’ve done a great job and we look forward to continuing to work on the project,” said Lochrie.
Barrios & Associates took over the contract in 2013 from the former firm of Roger Faubel, one of the most politically-connected lobbyists in Orange County.
Faubel won the contract in 2002 and 2012 despite other firms being ranked higher by bid-rating panels.
When Faubel closed his public relations firm, his clients and staff were transferred to Barrios’s firm, which is also known as Communications LAB.