Thursday, September 3, 2009

Schwarzenegger battling political fires

As if a crippled economy and raging wildfires weren't enough to keep him up at night, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is battling political fires as well.

Two issues warmed up for the governor this week.

First, news broke that a $9 million public relations contract to promote high-speed rail was going to be awarded to Mercury Public Affairs, a company that employs a number of former Schwarzenegger staffers, including his former campaign manager.

Two members of the selection panel have ties to firm principals and some in California are saying the selection smells a bit funny.

At what point does a company cross the line of conflict of interest? Mercury Public Affairs hired those former Schwarzenegger staffers because of their contacts and knowledge of administration issues.

So when does the conflict of interest emerge?

I think some agencies do it right when they say an employee cannot leave and come back and work on projects that they had some influence in creating. At Florida DOT, I have seen top professionals go work in other regions of the state and even other parts of the country so they would not even give the appearance of conflict of interest.

People who worked on the governor's staff influenced the high speed rail project.

They should not be allowed to leave the agency and come back and work on that same project. Corruption is too prevalent in government. We hear on a regular basis of politicians and government workers setting up a private sector landing spot while they are still working in government.

It is wrong for these former government workers to now go to the private sector and cash in.

The irony here is that we are talking about a public relations contract, where perception is everything.

Members of the selection panel say there is no conflict and that Mercury Public Affairs had the best proposal.

Well, here is the bottom line. Mercury Public Affairs, if awarded the contract, will go into the endeavor with a handicap. There is now a perception that they were the recipient of a sweetheart deal and they will have to spend a lot of public relations capital to erase that perception.

On top of the high speed rail affair, Schwarzenegger is also dealing with the aborted appointment of James Ghielmetti to the California Transportation Commission. Ghielmetti's appointment was withdrawn by the governor's office because of his opposition to the administration's position on public-private partnerships.

California state senators trumped the governor by appointing Gheilmetti to the commission independent of the governor.

It's not been a good week for Schwarzenegger.

David Fierro is a transportation public affairs consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation. He resides in Sanford, Florida.

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