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Harrisburg council weighs hiring Martin-Roberts as communications consultant

Gloria Martin-Roberts. File photo.

Harrisburg is considering creating a new communications liaison post, a contracted position that would be filled by former City Council president and mayoral candidate Gloria Martin-Roberts.

At a virtual council work session on Tuesday night, Mayor Eric Papenfuse stated that he wanted to hire his 2017 electoral opponent for the role, which would facilitate communications between the administration and City Council, the Dauphin County commissioners and the public.

“Ms. Martin-Roberts is somebody who I have been interested in bringing into the administration for some time,” Papenfuse said.

He said that the opportunity to hire Martin-Roberts arose after council discussed, a few months ago, the need to facilitate communications between the administration and council, especially during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.

That discussion led him to assess the city’s greater communications strategy, he said, broadening the concept to include communications both within the city government and with outside entities like the county and the public.

Papenfuse stated repeatedly that Martin-Roberts, a former council president, was the right person for such a job.

“She brings a wealth of experience, and I hope that she signals to the public a desire on the part of the administration to have a big tent and to work to bring this community together, which I think is more important now arguably more than ever amidst the current crisis that we are going through as a community,” he said.

Under the proposed resolution, the new position would pay $45 an hour, not to exceed $70,000. It would run through Dec. 31, 2021. As a contracted post, it would not include benefits.

The city already has a communications manager, Momin Bhatti. However, according to the resolution, the proposed position would go beyond communications and include public outreach, “strategic policy development and implementation,” and “marketing of city initiatives.”

Several council members had pointed questions about the proposal. Council member Ausha Green, in particular, asked how the position grew from a proposed intra-governmental communications post to one with a much broader scope.

“Some of it incorporates policy consultation,” Green said. “That doesn’t exactly seem like the role of a communications liaison.”

Papenfuse acknowledged that the position had grown beyond the initial discussion with council.

“It definitely expanded beyond what we were originally discussing before break, but that was, in part, due to Ms. Martin-Roberts’ input and communications when I talked to her about the position,” he said.

Several council members asked if any other people were considered for the post. Papenfuse said that no one else was considered because he wanted to hire only Martin-Roberts.

“I’m not prepared to separate the position from the person in that sense,” he said. “I think it was crafted and the position was expanded based on her skill set.”

Council member Westburn Majors asked if consulting contracts typically are awarded without a formal bidding process. City Solicitor Neil Grover stated that the city is not required to have a bidding process for most professional contracts, including this one.

Martin-Roberts was scheduled to participate in the virtual work session, but could not attend due to a family emergency, Papenfuse said. Several council members said that they would like to speak with her before voting on the resolution to enter into the contract.

“I think—this is once council person’s perspective—prior to moving forward on a vote, I definitely would want to have a conversation with Ms. Martin-Roberts,” Majors said.

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