Thursday, August 03, 2006

The PR Campaign: $572,496.62 and counting...

The problems at Hamden’s Newhall site began to get a little bit more public attention this past week with excellent articles in the New Haven Register and the Hamden Daily News, and some informed discussion on Ann Altman’s list. We are very grateful for these reputable papers for calling attention to our site.

We hear that the press (and the blog) also led to quite a bit of unpleasant behind-the-scenes activity between the DEP, LEA, FHI, and the other Big Dig subcontractors. The only public voice, of course, was Dennis Schain’s, with a futile attempt to present the Auditors' investigation to the Register as if it were just another day at the office. Schain, who came to the DEP after serving as spokesman for Governor Jodi Rell, predictably repeated the DEP’s mantra about protecting public health and the environment, but he never did explain why two long-serving, established legislators like Martin Looney and Peter Villano thought it was important to request an investigation of the DEP’s relationship with its lead Newhall contractor, or what it was that the Auditors found in DEP’s files that has kept them so pre-occupied for the past few months. What will it take for the DEP to make a public admission that there is a very serious problem in the Department? We’ll have to wait and see…

…But in the meantime, we thought we’d share some more of our own findings. To facilitate the flow of information to the public, we’ll be putting up new postings every two or three days between now and the Commissioner’s visit to our neighborhood on the 17th of August.

Let’s start with the enormous sums spent on public relations at the Newhall site...

The "Public Involvement" Boondoggle

You might think it wouldn’t cost much to pay someone to say, “Hold on, we’re hard at work on a plan that will be protective of human health and the environment,” for three years running, but between August 29, 2003 and March 31, 2006, the DEP spent $572,496.62 on public relations subcontractors. That comes out to $1889.43 spent for each of the 303 residences that are listed as part of the Newhall site.

That kind of money should be able to buy a highly informed public, but most people in the neighborhood are still completely in the dark about what is going on. Most people in the neighborhood have no idea whether their home lies on waste, or about the nature of the risks from their soil, or what remediation will mean for their lives and property. And even though money from the State Bonding Commission was earmarked for the implementation of a "public involvement plan" (see p. 64 of this linked document), the only sustained public participation in Newhall is the Newhall Advisory Committee, which is a monthly meeting of (unpaid) community reps whose requests and suggestions the DEP consistently rebuffs. Indeed, the only request that the neighborhood has made of the DEP—for an independent scientific expert to help evaluate the different remediation options—has been repeatedly denied by Commissioner McCarthy. In short, none of the extraordinary “public involvement” funding seems to involve the public.

So what happened to the money? Let's take a look...

$337,038.04 went to Jill Barrett and her firm, Fitzgerald and Halliday, Inc. (FHI)
(August 29, 2003 through March 2006).
We genuinely have no idea how this enormous transfer of public funds to FHI can be explained. FHI produced a handful of summaries, put up a website that was virtually identical in design to one used at another FHI project, filed written reports to DEP about some of our neighbors, and sent out a few mailings...but produced no known tangible results and nothing that would appear to cost this much.

$112,721.99 went to Health Risk Consultants and its subcontractors
(Beginning August 29, 2003)
HRC seems to have virtually the same job description as FHI, unless there is a clear difference between “public outreach” (FHI) and “facilitating public involvement” (HRC). Both firms were employed simultaneously. Given how little was conveyed to the public during this time, one PR firm would have been too many. Two looks like a boondoggle, or worse...

$42,861.54 went to Pamala Moore
(May 16, 2005 through April 21, 2006)
Moore was subcontracted to serve as the DEP’s Community Office Manager. According to the job description, Moore spends 37 hours per week disseminating information to community residents. In point of fact, Moore serves as a mouthpiece for LEA and DEP on the NAC, at public meetings, and with the media, posing as an ordinary resident and keeping hidden the fact that she is on LEA’s payroll.

$39,875.05 went to Kathleen M. Conway
(March 4, 2005 through March 2006)
Most community boards are self-governing. They elect a chair, somebody keeps the minutes, and everything usually functions just fine. For some reason the DEP thought it was more important for the Newhall Advisory Committee to have a “facilitator” to perform these simple functions than it was to have a scientist to advise them. For this purpose, they chose a highly paid lawyer, Ms. Kathleen Conway, and contracted with her for $74,420. The truth is that Conway is the NAC’s official handler, whose true job appears to be to steer the committee in whatever direction the DEP wants it to go. You can count on her to call on pre-selected “ordinary residents” at the August 17 meeting to voice support for DEP’s plan.

And since all of these are LEA subcontractors, LEA takes home a percentage as well.