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City hires firm for public outreach on water system purchase

The Claremont City Council unanimously approved the use of $176,000 of the city’s unassigned General Fund money to hire a communications firm to assist with public outreach as it pertains to the water system acquisition.

Although the city has been pursuing this endeavor for over two years, the ballot measure approved by council in June has pushed the topic to the forefront and the public’s need for information into overdrive. With the dramatic increase in media requests and public inquiries surrounding the local water issues, the city’s Public Information Officer, Bevin Handel, has been inundated with requests. In order to continue the high level of information regarding all of Claremont’s programs, city staff began seeking assistance with communications.

After contacting several public affair firms with experience in public education and community outreach, the city chose Fiona Hutton & Associates (FH&A), an independent firm based in Studio City, CA, specializing in complex and often controversial policy issues and public education. Adding to the firm’s appeal is the fact that they’ve also worked on several ballot initiative campaigns, including those for bonds to fund environmental programs.

With a past and current client list that includes water-based campaigns for the City of Malibu, The Association of California Water Agencies, The State Water Contractors, the Santa Margarita Water District and The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California just to name a few, FH&A has developed a bit of a reputation throughout the industry as an environmental public relations firm.

“$176,000 is a lot of money for a communications consultant,” says one Claremont resident. “That’s the kind of money that might be spent on a campaign to advocate the ballot measure but we know that’s not going to happen here because you’re constrained by law from doing so.”

Indeed, they are.

The Fair Political Practices Commission regulates campaign expenditures and oversees the use of public funds for campaigns. The city may expend public funds to provide the community with relevant information and educational materials that present a fair and balanced representation of the facts, but the city may not endorse or advocate for the measure.

“We are well aware, particularly on this issue, that we have many eyes on us,” says Fiona Hutton. “We have been very, very careful in advising council and our staff on where that line is between information and advocacy. We’re well aware of it, we’re mindful of it and we will not cross that line.”

First on the agenda for FH&A is a comprehensive communications and outreach plan geared towards educating Claremont residents on the potential water system acquisition revenue bond measure. Using print publications, web content, and educational materials in addition to other means, the public affair firm intends to provide voters with readily available access to information detailing the decision before them as well as clearly demonstrate the pros and cons about the issue.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” says councilman Sam Pedroza. ”There is so much information being put out there now with full-page ads and mailers, I think we have to take this step to help our staff get the right information out there. I support this staff recommendation and I’m approving the contract with Fiona Hutton & Associates.”

As the August 13 deadline to withdrawal the ballot measure draws near, the city and Fiona Hutton and Associates are going to have to kick things into high gear in order to educate all of Claremont on the local water issues. The revenue bond measure on the November ballot will require approval by more than 50 percent of Claremont voters during a special election for it to move forward.

The next regular meeting of the Claremont City Council will be held on July 22.

­–Angela Bailey

news@claremont-courier.com

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