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.