Council’s New Hires: $105K for a Graphic Designer & a Social Media Maven

Darrell Clarke wants to bring some polish to Council's communications. Can the city afford it?

Screenshot 2015-08-27 17.29.15

A sample of City Councils new graphic designer at work.

There’s no arguing that City Council could use a little help with its image. And it’s getting it, in the form of two relatively new staff positions in the Office of City Council President Darrell L. Clarke.

The hires? Anthony Buford, a full-time graphic designer, who was put on Council’s payroll in January, and Patricia Gillett, a full-time digital media director, hired in July. Their salaries are $50,000 and $55,000, respectively, plus generous city benefits.

Citified heard about the new positions this week, when council staffers were invited by the “Council Creative Team” to a “quick, 1-hour training course for finding, selecting and preparing photos for print and digital uses.” Also on the agenda? “A short introduction to the new City Council logo…”

The flyer raised some questions for us. How much did that new logo cost? And since when has Council had/needed a “creative team?”

Unlike the new $63,000 Water Department logo, Council’s “was designed in house and at no additional cost to taxpayers,” Clarke’s office tells us.

Well, no additional cost beyond the salary and benefits of the new Creative Team, anyway.

Clarke’s office says that Council needs the new positions to better communicate with constituents at a time when press coverage of City Hall is in decline. The office noted that neither the Inquirer nor the Daily News (nor Philly mag, for that matter) published Council’s neighborhood budget hearing schedule last spring.

“While the decline in numbers of the City Hall press corps is concerning, Council still has a responsibility to disseminate information about changes in the law, tax structure, and significant capital projects that have a direct impact on residents and businesses,” Clarke’s office said in a statement. “The addition of [Buford] and Patricia Gillett to respond to Council’s graphics and digital media needs, respectively, are a cost-effective way to help Council make sure residents and businesses have information about policies and issues that directly impact them.”

The Council President’s office has long employed a full-time communications director to manage press inquiries (among other duties). These new hires seem designed to help Council in general, and Clarke in particular, communicate directly with city residents without going through the press.

Gillett’s duties include managing Council’s website as well as the Clarke and City Council social media accounts (she’s available to help other Council members too, Clarke’s office says). Gillet also does some photography and video work. Buford, meanwhile, produces slick-looking documents like the one below, which touts Council’s “initiatives and accomplishments.”

City Council Initiatives and Accomplishments

What’s going on here? This is all part and parcel of Clarke’s broad effort to elevate Council’s stature in City Hall — to make it the political equal (at least) of the mayor’s office. Clarke, remember, has retained a lobbyist all Council’s own in Harrisburg. He’s also been beefing up Council’s shared policy team (which is very much a worthy investment). It seems Clarke has concluded that a well-polished communications approach will also help raise Councils’ profile, and he may well be right about that.

Nutter’s Office of Communications, for what it’s worth, counts five employees, whose combined salaries total $442,000 (though Desiree Peterkin Bell, the mayor’s Director of Communications, does double duty running the Office of the City Representative). Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald wrote in an email: “the communications office comprises a press secretary, deputy press secretary, a speechwriter and a social media aide.” He then added, in an arch parenthetical, “we do not have a graphic designer.” And of course, unlike Council’s communications staff, the mayor’s press office speaks for huge swaths of city government, not just the mayor.

Five years ago, the Pew Philadelphia Research Initiative compared City Council’s spending to that of legislative bodies in peer cities. Out of the 15 cities studied, Philadelphia ranked third in total council spending per resident, according to the Pew report (Pew looked at the 2009-2010 budget year).

Since then, City Council’s budget has grown by an additional 25 percent (about half that growth took place before Clarke was elevated to Council President). It’s up to $16.7 million this year, not counting the cost of benefits.

That’s some robust budget growth, compared to a number of key city departments. The Planning Commission for instance, has a 14 percent smaller budget today than it did in 2009-2010. The Streets Department’s budget is down 13 percent, and the Sanitation division has the same budget in 2015-2016 as it had in 2009-2010.

There are, of course, plenty of departmental budgets that have grown over that span. Fire spending is up 16 percent, police spending is up 22 points, and Parks spending has increased by 27 percent, to cite just a few examples. So it’s not like Council is funding itself and nobody else. (Also up sharply? Spending in the Mayor’s Office, which is up to just over $5 million this year, compared to $3.6 million in 2009-2010. That’s a 40 percent jump, albeit on a budget base that’s less than a third the size of Council’s.)

But Council — which authorizes all city spending — clearly isn’t depriving itself. And unlike other city departments, Council’s budget is something of a black box.

Council routinely opts not to hold hearings on its budget during budget season, even as its members grill city department heads, the mayor’s office and (ahem) the school district about how those entities spend public money.

And while the city’s detailed budget book breaks down spending into relatively small categories for most departments, Council provides only the broadest, baseline accounting of its own spending (see section 3, page 3 of that link, and compare it to the breakdown in the mayor’s office). A quick look at the budget book, for instance, reveals every position and salary in the mayor’s office.

Now, City Council promptly provided salary information when we asked for it, and with a little digging, all of Council’s expenses can be examined. But there’s no question that Council’s financial operations are, by design, more opaque than the rest of city government.