The Brookfield Public Library Board of Trustees has hired a St. Louis-based communications and consulting firm to advise it while prepares for an expected referendum in 2016 as it seeks to build a new library.
In June, the library board voted 4 to 1, with Carol Kissane casting the lone dissenting vote, to hire Unicom ARC, which specializes in helping government bodies communicate with and obtain input from citizens, as well as providing consulting services for passing referendums.
In 2006, the campaign committee advocating for the successful Riverside-Brookfield High School building bond referendum campaign hired Unicom ARC to work on that referendum campaign.
In May, the two principals at Unicom ARC made a presentation to the library board about what it takes to pass a referendum.
The library will be paying the company $2,650 a month for what is envisioned to be a 15-month contract that could cost $39,750, plus expenses.
“I just thought it was too much money,” said Kissane about her vote against hiring the firm.
Under Illinois law taxpayer money cannot be used to advocate for a particular vote in a referendum. Brookfield Library Board President Jennifer Perry said Unicom ARC is merely being hired to provide public relations assistance, aid in gathering citizen input and promote community engagement, not to pass a referendum.
“It’s an education campaign,” Perry said. “It’s a public relations firm that is going to help us communicate with the public what the library’s needs are. It is not a referendum campaign. It is about getting people information about the library — do people really understand what issues the library is facing, space constraints, how many patrons we turn away from programs, what the issues are with the building itself.”
Rod Wright, the president of Unicom ARC emphasized in an interview with the Landmark that his firm was hired to seek citizen input, not to pass a referendum.
“We will not be doing any advocacy for passage of a referendum in this program,” Wright said.
Wright said that a community engagement process does not always lead to a referendum.
“We’ve done programs where boards were thinking about a referendum and, after they went through the community program, they scratched their heads and said we better rethink this,” Wright said.
But the proposal that Unicom ARC presented to the library board in June, dubbed a proposal for “communication services,” lists several action steps “concerning actions between now and November 2016,” which culminate in a referendum.
Steps include “engagement”; public opinion research (which would have to be paid for by a campaign committee or some other outside group, the proposal states); development/delivery of a final plan; training of campaign leadership; and ballot certification/informational outreach.
The final step in the plan is listed as referendum campaign, from September 2016 to October 2016. According to the proposal, during the final two months of a referendum campaign, primary responsibility for communications would fall to a campaign committee.
“Unicom ARC can and will help this committee in any capacity desired, but that falls outside the scope of this proposal,” the proposal states.
Perry said any such aid by Unicom ARC to a campaign committee would be completely separate from the work it is doing for the library.
In its proposal, Unicom Arc states that it will conduct a campaign training seminar for free and that it would “volunteer” to help with informational material following the time the referendum question is certified to appear on the ballot.
“We will also, at no additional cost, conduct our campaign training seminar (a value of $12,500), regularly meet with the campaign committee, and help with the writing and production of all its materials,” the proposal states. “We will extend our work to election day in that we will ‘volunteer’ to help the library with its informational material following ballot certification and also help the PAC or campaign committee with its activities.
Unicom ARC’s game plan is apparent in the formation of PLACE 2016, a “community engagement” arm of the library’s Facility Advisory Committee, which the library recently formed. In its proposal Unicom ARC recommended the creation of just this sort of group.
Perry denied that hiring Unicom ARC amounts to using taxpayer dollars to try and pass a referendum, which is prohibited under Illinois law.
“We are not hiring them to push a yes vote for a referendum,” Perry said. “They’re helping us with community engagement and planning for a future library and gathering input. That is what we are doing right now. It’s beyond what we can do ourselves. We needed some guidance on how to do this, on how to reach the community.”