South Pasadena has a $100,000 question to answer in the coming weeks: Whether a full-time, six-figure public information officer is a necessity or a luxury for a small municipality that’s strapped for cash.
That question arises because John Pope, the PIO hired in October 2018 at around that $100,000 annual figure, has left his post to take a similar but more high-paying position with the city of Newport Beach.
Pope’s official last day was Thursday, and the city has not yet advertised the job — whose duties, among other things, are dealing with media, writing press releases and keeping the city’s website up to date. Pope was also a key player in formulating the city’s crisis management plan.
City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe said she anticipates bringing an interim person on board during the recruitment process so that the city will have “some coverage” in those communications areas.
Pope’s annual salary fell, roughly, between $91,000 and $123,000, with the median of those figures being around $106,000.
Cities are required to release salary ranges but not specific figures for individual employees at any given moment. But it’s probably safe to say that Pope, a former newspaperman with years of experience, was collecting somewhere around that median range of $106,000 annually.
But given the city’s well-documented fiscal struggles – voters passed Measure A just a month ago, establishing a local sales tax ahead of an anticipated budget gap — the question was posed this week to both DeWolfe and then-Mayor Marina Khubesrian:
Can South Pas afford a PIO making somewhere north of $100,000? Might the role be scaled back in salary, or perhaps even made part-time – particularly in light of the fact that Pope, at least on some days, worked from his home in Long Beach, not from City Hall?
In other words, is this opening a chance for the city to save some money?
Khubesrian acknowledged that the PIO role — which is relatively new to the city’s hierarchy — has “been an issue” for some residents.
While DeWolfe, in an interview with the Review, stressed that Pope was a full-time employee who “was in the office just about every day,” she came down firmly on the side of a full-time PIO being a necessity.
She also said, “If we choose to pay below market value, we will not attract quality talent.’’
“I think communication is a critical function of local government,’’ DeWolfe said. “It’s probably something that we can never do enough of. So communication will always be a high priority for the city – certainly it’s a priority for the council and my team.
“That said, I think it’s an area that we still need to improve on in South Pasadena. … Having a professional communications person on staff is a critical component of being able to meet those needs in the community.’’
Both DeWolfe and Khubesrian — still a council member after Wednesday’s annual reorganization elevated Bob Joe to the mayor’s spot — said the Pope opening is a chance for the city to rethink the PIO’s role and responsibilities, perhaps evolving the job into something larger and more wide-ranging … and giving the city more bang for its bucks.
“Whenever we have a vacancy in a high-level position, it’s always a good time to consider revising or restructuring job function, just to make sure that that job design is exactly what we need to accomplish the goals that are on the table in front of us,’’ DeWolfe said.
“I will absolutely be doing that before opening up recruitment for this position. I don’t anticipate it becoming a part-time position – really, what I’ll be looking at is how it might be amended to in fact strengthen the communications that we have with our community.’’
For her part, Khubesrian said, “I think definitely when there’s an opportunity like this, when a position becomes open, it’s always important to rethink it, and think of … could it be a part-time job, could it cost less, or maybe even could this particular job be combined with some other thing that the city needs at this point?
“That’s the kind of … internal process we’ll be having, and discussions that we’ll be having over the next couple of weeks as we think about going forward with how we basically fill that role.’’
Khubesrian declined to put a time frame on naming a new PIO — ultimately, that will be DeWolfe’s call. But she did say, “I don’t think we want to wait too long, because things move so quickly, and you want to be in the position where we are anticipating things that could come up.
“Anything could happen, right? There could be a natural disaster,’’ Khubesrian said. “We definitely don’t want to leave a vacuum in our ability to communicate and message and make sure the residents get the most accurate and up-to-date information as quickly as possible.’’
Khubesrian also said that while the city will re-evaluate the scope of the PIO’s job — council members consulting with DeWolfe and her staff — “It’s less likely that it’ll be cut back to a part-time job and more likely it’ll be combined with some other skill set that we need.’’
Meanwhile, as the recruitment process fires up, DeWolfe said that she and her staff would be exploring how other cities of similar size in the region – such as Sierra Madre, San Marino and Glendora — run their communications departments.
She said her staff would also be looking at models in place in larger cities such as Pasadena — for ideas, if not for pay scales. DeWolfe stressed that’s she’s well-aware of South Pas’ bottom line.
“We obviously can’t afford structures like some of the bigger cities, but I think it’s still worth looking at,’’ she said.
“What are some of the cutting-edge models for communications programs in small cities? And if there are some ideas that we can gather from other places – can we borrow from them and then downsize?”