Public information's pricey with spin doctors on staff

October 26, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writer

They spin, they hype, they catch a lot of flak.

Without the masters of public information, the most powerful figures at Baltimore City Hall could end up getting too little attention -- or perhaps a bit too much.

But all the talk isn't cheap. The city spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year and employs several dozen people to keep the public informed of newsworthy events.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, for example, spends $104,500 a year to handle requests from the media, community organizations, churches and other groups. But the mayor's three-member staff is significantly smaller than the public relations divisions of some city agencies.

The city's public school system has a staff of six and spends more than $233,000. The Police Department devotes two officers, a supervisor and more than $120,000 to public information. And Public Works spends $250,000 a year informing the public about trash collection, cleanups, road repairs and utility services.

However, some high-ranking city officials don't have such large staffs. Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who is rarely at a loss for words, spends $34,000 on a public information officer to handle her requests.

For her part, acting Comptroller Shirley Williams has decided to brave it on her own. Last month, she opted not to renew the nearly $30,000 annual contract for Marie Henderson, the part-time public information officer hired by former Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean amid criticism in the fall of 1992.

"I decided that it wasn't something we really needed at this time," Ms. Williams said.

Ms. Henderson initially was paid $700 a month. At the same time, McLean hired a fictitious public relations consultant called "Michele McCloud." The former comptroller has since pleaded guilty to stealing more than $25,000 by sending checks to McCloud and a phony public relations group.

Last fall, McLean gave Ms. Henderson a raise, paying her $1,238 every other week, or $30.96 an hour. Ms. Henderson, who was not implicated in the McLean corruption scandal, was little known until then.

The controversy that engulfed the comptroller's office had other public relations consequences. City Solicitor Neal M. Janey, who fielded a barrage of requests from reporters seeking copies of McLean's contracts and the paychecks she had authorized, recently appointed one of his attorneys to handle public affairs.

Rebecca Tabb, an assistant city solicitor since 1989 who receives an annual salary of about $53,000, will provide information on legal cases to city agencies, the media and civic organizations. Her appointment is part of a larger reorganization of his 80-member staff, Mr. Janey said.

Most city agencies have more than one professional spin doctor. A five-member staff, paid about $149,000, handles public relations for three agencies -- the city's Housing Authority, Human Resources and the Department of Housing and Community Development.

The Health Department has two public information officers and two secretaries, who are paid a total of $113,000. However, the staff shrank by five people after budget cuts resulted in layoffs, transfers and hiring freezes in recent years.

The city now has about 26,500 workers, down from 30,000 several years ago.

Most of the city's public information officers agree that the Schmoke administration has put much less emphasis on their efforts than William Donald Schaefer did as mayor.

"We're expected to do a lot more with less these days," said Beverly Camp, who has been a spokeswoman for the Health Department for more than a decade.

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