By: The Ledger
Lakeland’s July 16 “terms of engagement” with a Tampa public relations firm specified that the firm would advise the city “in regard to anticipated litigation involving Lakeland Police Department employee Sue Eberle.”
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The PR work of Tucker/Hall has largely steered clear of Eberle.
Instead, the firm focused in 2013 on speechwriting for City Manager Doug Thomas and then-Mayor Gow Fields, reported The Ledger’s John Chambliss and Rick Rousos in an article Thursday.
A prominent subject of the firm’s speechwriting was a presentment of the Polk County grand jury. That investigative report criticized the Lakeland Police Department’s withholding of public records. Eberle was not involved.
A Police Department sex scandal, in which Eberle was central, involved 10 on-duty police officers who committed sexual acts and more than 20 officers altogether.
Eberle has not filed a lawsuit.
DEALING IN THE DARK
The PR deal was essentially secret until reported by The Ledger. Its approval process challenged Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.
Thomas called city commissioners to one-on-one meetings, in which he sought approval to hire the PR firm, said Commissioners Don Selvage and Justin Troller, and Mayor Howard Wiggs, to The Ledger. The Sunshine Law requires commission decisions to be made together in open meetings with public notice, and for votes and minutes to be recorded.
Thomas made the decision to hire Tucker/Hall, said City Attorney Tim McCausland.
McCausland directed the GrayRobinson law firm to hire Tucker/Hall on the city’s behalf.
GrayRobinson did so through its attorney Mark N. Miller, who was Lakeland city attorney from 1982 until 1989. He dated the engagement letter July 16 but made the hiring effective July 8.
Not only could this layer cake hiring concoction have added expense, it took management of Tucker/Hall out of City Hall and placed it with GrayRobinson, where it was less likely to be noticed.
No charge for GrayRobinson’s oversight of Tucker/Hall has been stated, but Miller’s letter says the PR firm may mark up the charges of outside vendors 17.65 percent. Miller noted printers and market-research firms as examples of such vendors.
When the City Commission meets today at 9 a.m., it should ask Deputy City Manager Tony Delgado (Thomas is on medical leave) and McCausland to explain why:
■ The Tucker/Hall hiring was not brought to a City Commission meeting for approval.
■ The city used the third party of GrayRobinson to hire the PR firm rather than doing so directly.
■ The firm strayed from its directive of giving advice on anticipated litigation from Eberle.
■ The commission was not updated monthly on Tucker/Hall billings and activities.
As of Thursday, when The Ledger received a copy of Tucker/Hall’s $5,200 bill for January, the PR firm’s work has cost Lakeland $134,624. The firm charges as much as $350 per hour.
Commissioners are calling for such questioning and more, Chambliss reported in an article Saturday.
“As we let this percolate, some people just hope it will go away,” Selvage said. “I want to deal with it, discuss it and move on.”
Selvage also said the commission should “take some action dealing with mistakes that were made.”
Wiggs said, “There is a lot to decide before we just let this go.”
Troller called for the city to end its arrangement with the PR firm. “I don’t need any speeches written for me,” he said.
Troller, Selvage and Wiggs are right.
The City Commission should act today to:
■ Cut ties with Tucker/Hall.
■ Repudiate one-on-one commissioner meetings in which the city manager seeks approval of work, policy or other city activities.
■ Formalize a $25,000 limit on spending by the city manager without commission approval.
■ Call on administrators to hire consultants directly whenever possible, rather than through second or third parties.