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Encinitas nixes communications position

ENCINITAS — The Encinitas City Council opted to contract out for its communications services as opposed to having an in-house communications director at this week’s meeting, a reversal of the previous city administration’s practice that drew criticism from the public as being costly and unnecessary.

Encinitas has not had a spokesperson since former communications director Marlena Medford resigned in May 2015. Since then, the city has delegated Medford’s duties of interfacing with the public and the media to department heads.

According to a city staff report for the Feb. 10 council agenda, staff is recommending the council use contract services to accomplish the duties of the communication director.

City staff estimates that the city would save more than $120,000 over the next two years by contracting out the position.

“Contract communication professionals would work with staff to develop a comprehensive communication strategy and assist in meeting the City’s day to day communications aspects, including public outreach, education and engagement, as well as media services,” according to the staff report. “This approach enables flexibility by utilizing optimal resources where needed and results in overall cost savings by eliminating the Communications Officer position.”

Staff recommended a two-pronged approach to replacing the position — contracting with (W)right on Communications, a well-known Solana Beach-based communications agency, for $4,800 a month to provide day-to-day communications services as needed and to help develop a comprehensive communications strategy; and contract with Rising Tide Partners to provide specialized communications for the city’s environmental projects, such as its Climate Action Plan update, for $22,400 annually.

(W)right on Communications, which is spearheaded by the wife-and-husband team of Julie and Grant Wright, has worked with a number of companies and foundations, such as the Hilton Garden Inn in Carlsbad, Tri-City Medical Center and the Tri-City Hospital Foundation, H.G. Fenton Company, the San Diego Green Building Council and North County Health Services. The firm’s website, however, does not list any cities or counties among their list of clientele.

“We have worked with a lot of different industries, and I think our work with Encinitas will very much fit with what we are doing, including community outreach and hopefully giving the city a good open process and communication structure, which the city is looking to do,” Grant Wright said. “Whether you are working with state governments, or SDG&E, or in this case, the city, there are certain common communications elements and we are very comfortable working with cities for our clients. I think it is a natural fit in that way.”

Rising Tide Partners lists the Encina Wastewater Authority and the San Elijo Joint Powers Authority as its government clients.

According to the staff report, the firm boosted Encina’s social media fans from 82 to 12,000 over an 18-month period.

The proposal marks a shift from the city’s practice under former City Manager Gus Vina, who created the communications director position and hired Medford in 2013 to improve interactions with the public.

While Medford received praise from her peers — she won two statewide awards from the California Association of Public Information Officials — and boosted the city’s social media presence, critics said the position was unnecessary and questioned if the city could afford it.

Medford resigned last May, citing employment opportunities and family obligations. Reached Wednesday, Medford said she was glad the city would continue to invest in communications services, even in the contract variety.

“I absolutely trust the city manager’s call, and I have full confidence that the city manager knows what is best for the city at the time,” Medford said. “I believe she is making the decision that is best for the city in the long term. I am happy to hear they are contracting out services, because I still feel it is an important part of our service to the public.”

City Manager Karen Brust also recommended a deputy city manager position be converted into an assistant city manager position, and that the city temporarily reassign the stormwater environmental specialist to spearhead the city’s Climate Action Plan update in the role of Acting Program Administrator.