January 26, 2019 07:27 AM
As thousands of public comments rolled in about the controversial Minneapolis 2040 development plan last summer, the city hired a public relations firm to "reframe the narrative" around the plan, but initially failed to disclose that contract to a member of the public, according to records obtained by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.
Opponents of the plan, which has drawn national attention, accuse the city of trying to spin public perception while an expert on the state's data practices law says not providing a copy of a public document, such as the PR contract, could create a perception that city leaders are engaging in some sort of a "cover up."
Managers in the city's Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) office signed a contract with St. Paul-based Goff Public in July that paid consultants $195 an hour for a communications strategy that included embargoed conversations with reporters in advance of the release of "draft 2" of the plan, as well as media pitches and op-eds ...
However, later in July, Heather Worthington, CPED's director of long range planning denied that such a contract existed when an outspoken critic of the 2040 plan submitted a request under the Minnesota Data Practice Act for records relating to "any public relations consulting services" concerning Minneapolis 2040 or the city.
"I do not have any data," Worthington responded in an email.
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Tim Keane, who submitted the request, says he was disappointed in the city's response.
"It certainly appeared to play fast and loose with the facts," he said.
Keane is a homeowner, lawyer and former planner who has criticized the 2040 comprehensive plan, which made national news because the proposal would eliminate single-family zoning citywide. Last month, the Minneapolis City Council voted to submit the plan to the Metropolitan Council for approval.
"The rest of us do feel manipulated," Keane said. "We do feel the cake was baked before it went into the oven."
Keane says he never received a copy of the contract, but the city tells KSTP staff eventually provided the document to him in September. Keane says he never received an explanation for why the city did not initially turn over the contract.
Worthington declined KSTP'S repeated requests for an interview about the contract with Goff. Her boss, CPED director David Frank also declined an interview request and walked away from a KSTP camera at city hall when asked about why the city did not initially provide a copy of the contract to a member of the public.
In emails to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, Casper Hill, a spokesman for the city, said it hired Goff "because we had a vacancy in our internal Communications Manager position."
Hill said Worthington initially denied having any records related to public relations because the contract with Goff "was not for public relations consulting; it was for strategic communications services that were needed while CPED's marketing and communications manager position was vacant."
Yet, invoices obtained by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS show Goff Public billed the city for just under $40,000 for "public relations services" provided from July through November.
A transparency advocate and expert on the Minnesota Data Practice Act says the city needlessly invited questions about a "cover up" by not immediately providing a copy of the Goff contract when a member of the public asked for it.
"It's just dumb ... Don't do dumb things that make you look like you're trying to hide things from the public," said Don Gemberling with the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.
Gemberling lives in St. Paul and says he has had no involvement in the debate over the merits of the Minneapolis 2040 plan.
"The worst thing you can do in highly controversial situations is play games with the information," he said. "That changes the controversy into an additional issue of 'What are you trying to hide from us?' And that's what that looks like. It's just bad."
Others including city council member Linea Palmisano have also questioned how the city used Goff's services to promote the 2040 plan.
"Suggesting that you are going to 'reframe the narrative' asserts that there is a preferred narrative and there shouldn't be in this work," said Palmisano, who was the lone "no" vote when the city council considered the 2040 plan.
Hill also emailed the following responses to KSTP's questions:
"The City was working to counter a massive misinformation campaign about Minneapolis 2040 that spread fear and confusion in the community. One claim made by opponents was that the City was going to "bulldoze neighborhoods," even though the City has no authority to do such a thing. City staff have worked very hard to inform the community about the breadth and depth of the draft Comprehensive Plan and refute inaccurate information. Its overarching goal is to manage growth in Minneapolis so everyone benefits."
"Staff need to provide elected leaders with the most complete and accurate information they have on projects. Briefing council members close to the release date made sure the information they received was going to be as accurate as possible to the information that would be made public."
Goff Public's CEO Chris Georgacas told KSTP the firm's work with the city has concluded and added the following statement:
"We were glad to help the City of Minneapolis communicate about the 2040 Comprehensive Plan and supplement their communications capabilities when they were short staffed in the Community Planning and Economic Development Department."
The Metropolitan Council is expected to complete its review of the Minneapolis 2040 plan later this year before allowing the city to move forward. Municipalities in the Twin Cities are required to provide updates to their comprehensive plans every 10 years.
Updated: January 26, 2019 07:27 AM
Created: January 25, 2019 04:18 PM
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