The Aberdeen City Council got to put its newly adopted conflict-of-interest ordinance to work Monday as it heard Mayor Travis Schaunaman’s request to excuse him from that ordinance and allow him to bid for the Chamber of Commerce’s revived city rebranding campaign. The discussion begins around the 30-minute mark of the meeting video:
Adhering a flowchart created by city attorney Ron Wager, the council discussed the details of Mayor Schuanaman’s request. Schaunaman explained that his Production Monkeys ad agency has a thirteen-year relationship with the Chamber. Schaunaman insisted that he has no control over whom the Chamber chooses and that if he gets the city-funded contract, it will only be because of the awesomeness of his company. He warned that if he is not allowed to bid, the Chamber will likely be forced to spend more money on an out-of-town ad firm. He said the spirit of the ordinance passed last fall was about disclosure, not stifling business.
Schaunaman said his advertising bid would cost the Chamber no more than $18,000. He plans to bill $90 per hour, “which is a fraction as much as many out-of-town firms and probably comparable to everyone in our area that provides that service.” Schaunaman said the Chamber’s timeframe is to select a contractor by February 28, then roll the new branding out by the end of April.
Councilman Rob Ronayne said he doesn’t question the value or quality of Schaunaman’s advertising work, but he expressed concern about having a council member participating in votes to grant money to organizations and then via his private business taking money from those same organizations. “I just question whether a city council member should be receiving what are essentially recycled city dollars in compensation for services. I don’t think we ought to be working for the city other than [being] paid to be here tonight.” Ronayne expressed concern about appearances and the real possibility of council members voting to punish organizations who don’t give them contracts. To that latter concern, Schaunaman shot back, asking Ronayne to distinguish Ronayne’s work for the Development Corporation from Schaunaman’s bid to the Chamber. Deputy Mayor Dave Bunsness interrupted that testy exchange to get back to the issue at hand.
Councilman David Lunzman asked if the contract might lead to further payment to Production Monkeys for future work related to deploying the new branding. Schaunaman said this contract constitutes “the lion’s share” of the work involved and this work will likely let the Chamber proceed without spending further money on his firm.
Councilman Clint Rux said he didn’t have enough information to determine if the bidding process is fair and to justify his vote to constituents.
Schaunaman’s conservative compadre Councilman Josh Rife moved to approve the motion to exempt Schaunaman in this instance from the conflict-of-interest ordinance. After an awkward silence, Councilman Rux seconded “for conversation.” Rife said it makes sense to give the Chamber more options. He expressed concern that strict enforcement of the conflict-of-interest could deter small-business owners like himself from serving on the City Council. Rife said he “is struggling to see the crime here” and said we should leave it to the Chamber to determine what is fair and reasonable. The Mayor, Rife said, “isn’t going to have a lot of sway” over the Chamber. As “a citizen and a council member,” said Rife, now moving beyond discussing conflict of interest to helping Schaunaman pitch his bid to the Chamber, “I would be excited to have the mayor of the city play a role in the branding and marketing of our city.”
Councilman Dennis “Mike” Olson said “it certainly creates an influence that is not right and creates a situation in the public’s eye that something about this doesn’t look right. It isn’t criminal… but we’re elected to be fair and impartial in all the decisions we make for the City of Aberdeen…. When we as a council decide who gets city marketing dollars… and then we turn around… and authorizes one of our members to get some of that money—I’m sorry, that’s not right.”
Councilman Rux repeated his opposition to the motion due to lack of information. He says he’d need to see the contract and hear from the Chamber why they chose Schaunaman’s firm to do the job before excusing Schaunaman from the ordinance.
Councilman Lunzmann expressed concern that the money for the rebranding is coming primarily from the city and said, like Rux, he can’t support authorizing an exception based on the information currently available.
The council voted 7–1 against the motion. Rife was the only aye.
Thanks to the Aberdeen City Council for taking a powerful stand for ethics. It is unconscionable when officials use these subterfuges to recycle tax dollars to themselves.
I’d go further, though. I wonder why the Chamber is put in charge of this. Yes, they are a valuable part of any community, but they are, after all, a special interest group. They can brand their own organization, and use their own money to do so. This re-branding will affect much more than the Chamber. Why can’t a broad-based volunteer citizens committee be given the task to do this, if it needs to be done at all? I recall thinking the current stuff was pretty darn good. Why change it?
I am pleased, Donald, that a strong majority of the Council has agreed with my analysis from back in August that the Mayor’s seeking of this lucrative contract is a conflict of interest.
You do ask an interesting question about who ought to be in charge of that branding. Indeed, the Chamber is a special interest, focused on business. Now a smart Chamber/business community will recognize that promoting business—attracting investors and workers and customers—requires promoting everything the city has to offer, not just economic opportunities but cultural and natural resources.
I suspect if we distributed the task to a broad-based citizen volunteer committee, you’d find a majority of regular folks who aren’t swept in the business-world obsession with marketing and who would be far more inclined to question whether a city needs to brand itself at all.
I also agree that there does not appear to be any strong reason to change the brand. “Write your story” actually speaks to me. It has an active verb and invites all sorts of possibilities. And of course, we’ve seen no data on how much business the current logo generates or how much more business or tax revenue or other goods a new branding campaign could generate. Rebranding just seems like an excuse to give advertisers regular business.
I like “Write Your Story”. The slogan welcomes and challenges new Aberdonians. It showcases the Universities and encourages change. The quill is memorable, also.
The mayors conduct during this meeting did not help him.
The council made the right decision. The Mayor, Council Members and City Manager need to have extremely high moral and ethical standards. If you are a smart business person, you stay away from elected office as all you do is create enemies.
Scott, I too was surprised that Schaunaman would jump into the discussion to attack Councilman Ronayne when it seemed clear that his proper role was to recuse himself from the discussion and let the council decide the matter without his interference.
Most members of the Council are businessmen. They appear to understand how to separate their private pursuits from their public obligations. Schaunaman apparently lacks the maturity to recognize that he has to put some of his own desires aside to serve the public.
I, too, am surprised Schaunaman didn’t make his request, answer any questions, then voluntarily leave the room while the members discussed. I guess he either lacks common sense or felt his request wasn’t sufficient on its merits so he needed to stay there in an attempt to intimidate members.
He was wrong regardless.
I wonder if any of those ethical No voting members are interested in running for US Senate?
Debbo, I’m pretty sure it’s the latter, fueled by a sense of Trumpist entitlement.
One of those sensible council members, Mark Remily, ran against Al Novstrup for Legislature three cycles back. Alas, Remily did not win. For now, I’m happy to keep those sensible council members here as a bulwark against further local slide into Trumpism.