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updated: 7/15/2012 6:30 AM

DuPage election panel scrutinizes PR firm contract

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Members of the revamped DuPage Board of Election Commissioners are questioning the need to keep a public relations firm hired by their predecessors.

The bipartisan panel that oversees the DuPage Election Commission for years has been using Republican strategist Dan Curry as the agency's spokesman. Curry's company, Reverse Spin, is being paid $3,000 a month by the commission but does not currently have a contract.

Now, the commission staff is proposing that Reverse Spin be given a one-year, $36,000 professional services contract. Money for the contract would be set aside in the agency's next budget.

But before any vote on the contract takes place, the new members of the election panel want commission Executive Director Robert Saar to justify the expense.

"Can you explain to me why the board of election commissioners needs to have a public relations contract?" board Chairman Cathy Ficker Terrill asked Saar during a meeting last week.

Saar said the decision to hire Reverse Spin was made by previous members of the election panel, all of whom were ousted in April after a consultants' report found poor ethics and procurement practices at the commission.

The former board members, according to Saar, thought it was beneficial to have a spokesman "to manage the message" coming out of the agency.

Still, Terrill said she doesn't see the need for the commission to use a public relations firm when staff can email news releases to the media and put information on the agency's website.

Terrill is giving Saar until the Aug. 2 board meeting to write a memorandum to commissioners explaining why Reverse Spin should be given a contract -- and why other firms shouldn't be allowed to bid on the work.

"If you believe that this commission needs a $36,000 contract for public relations, put together a decision memo," Terrill told Saar.

"I'm just asking for factual information about the need and the purpose," she added, "and what it is that we get for $36,000."

Curry said he's not surprised by the request.

"I think the commission has the duty and obligation to look at all spending," he said.

Curry has done work for the commission since at least 2007, records show. His hiring has been controversial.

On several occasions, Democratic Party leaders in DuPage have urged the commission to fire Reverse Spin because of Curry's ties to the Republican Party.

But in 2010, the commission's ethics panel determined the agency did nothing wrong when it rehired Curry after he took time off to work on former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan's Republican gubernatorial primary campaign.

Curry, who is a former press secretary for Ryan, has worked in statewide campaigns for former State's Attorney Joe Birkett and was communications director for former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.

Despite his political activities, Curry stressed that his work with the election commission is nonpartisan.

He said he's never been accused of representing the agency in a partisan manner.

Curry said he believes he is providing an important service.

"The commission is conducting elections, and information has to be given out in a timely and effective manner," he said.

The election commission isn't Reverse Spin's only governmental client.

The DuPage Forest Preserve District hired the company in November 2011 after the departure of two district employees suspected of misusing taxpayer funds and resources. As part of its one-year deal with the forest preserve, Reverse Spin is being paid $48,000 to be on call 24/7 for crisis situations.

Forest preserve President D. "Dewey" Pierotti Jr. on Friday said the board hasn't yet made a decision about whether the contract will be renewed.

"We're going to sit down and do an evaluation of what they've done for us," Pierotti said. "There's been some discussion among the board members to hire someone in-house to perform the same duty."

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