05/02/13 — Commissioners paying $7,000 for liaison to handle questions

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Commissioners paying $7,000 for liaison to handle questions

By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 2, 2013 1:46 PM

The Wayne County commission has hired a liaison to speak to the media -- at an additional payroll cost of about $7,000.

Chairman Steve Keen refused to comment on the appointment of Barbara Arntsen, Wayne County public affairs and marketing manager, as the county's public information officer. According to the commission, Ms. Arntsen will handle questions for county commissioners.

Since her appointment several months ago, Ms. Arntsen has responded to approximately 50 questions posed by the News-Argus, including questions sent to County Manager Lee Smith.

Most of the responses have concerned county schedules and other operational information. There have been few if any press releases, other than notifications.

The News-Argus attempted to contact Keen by phone and email to ask for an interview to discuss the reasons for the appointment.

Keen's only response was an email that reads, "She and her staff are working very hard to respond to all citizen and media requests. And to do so in a courteous and effective manner after gathering and verifying all information through interview, observation and research."

Keen did respond to two more requests for interviews, but only to say that specific questions should be emailed to him and to Ms. Arntsen for additional information.

Smith said the move was designed to streamline the flow of information, not to stifle it.

"It is of utmost importance to the board of commissioners that we get information out to the public about what the county is doing, and that was an impetus for this transition," Smith said.

Smith was asked if the move would insulate commissioners from the media.

"I really think that they are really trying to make sure the message is consistent," he said. "The one thing we have advantage of as a staff is we are here every single day. We know, hopefully, what the laws are, what the policies are. Commissioners know them at a higher level."

Commissioners get calls and emails that they pass along to staff and ask for a response because they are trying to ensure the facts are correct, Smith said. The information is sent to the person who asked the question and to commissioners as well.

Smith also was asked if it was a case of commissioners not feeling comfortable talking to the media.

"I don't think so," he said. "There has not really been any discussion with the board about that. The big thing is, from a board, having a consistent message -- particularly when the board has acted on something, making sure that the message that goes out is the same, is appropriate, again doing the fact checking, and making sure again a consistent message."

Smith said he didn't know if all of the questions and answers would flow through Ms. Arntsen.

"We want good, clean information. We want to be professional and timely in response. But we also want to be factual."

Smith said that the appointment of a public information officer had been a long time coming.

"It is kind of a multi-prong approach, migrating to this," Smith said. "My intention when I originally hired Barbara six or eight years ago, part of it was to assist me with public information. (Her job) transitioned into the website. I needed help with that, and then the social media. Then television came along.

"After looking at a new board coming on, it is obvious that they just want to make sure that they are getting more information out to the community, out to county citizens and businesses. In my opinion, this is a natural transition."

The transition will include an approximately $7,000 increase in pay taking Mrs. Arntsen's salary from about $58,000 to $65,000.