Public Relations Proves Vital In Chicago’s Troubled Waters

Tinley Park

Tinley Park, a suburb of Chicago, recently faced a controversy over their water meters. It seems the information from the meters was too often incorrect. The city hired a PR firm to help them through the crisis. Prairie State Strategies helps with community outreach, engagement, and crisis communications – all to inform the public of what officials do to resolve the matter.

The problem first became a public matter when reported by the Chicago Tribune in June when the smart water meters’ problems were reported.  According to their article, the suburb knew about this problem for years, and they overbilled residents while telling the public meters worked as they should.  When they did issue refunds, it was usually at an amount less than was really due.

Beginning in July, the PR firm has worked with Tinley Park racking up a bill of $10,725 for three months (at $300 per hour).  Many residents don’t like this use of public funds, though according to a recent chicagotribune.com article, the PR consultant, Douglas O’Brien, said, “We’ve spent a good deal of time on the water meter issue because that is obviously front and center right now in terms of the public’s interest,” he also said it’s “tremendously widespread” for government entities to use communications consultants.

The article continued, reporting about Sean Draves, a resident whose meter was finally removed because it recorded water use when there was no flow. Mr. Draves questions the cost to the taxpayer for the consultant. “If you are telling the truth and being honest, why would you need someone to craft that message for you? I bet that (money) could have been used to square up some water accounts.”

O’Brien’s guidance has proven useful to the city several times during the last few months. He was there to assist as the Public Works Director resigned in July. Also there to help prepare officials prior to a town hall meeting in August where residents grilled Mayor Dave Seaman – the town hall was hosted by state Senator Michael Hastings (D). O’Brien continued to help later in August when a lawsuit regarding the meters was filed seeking class-action status and accusing officials of “unfair, immoral, unjust, oppressive and unscrupulous” conduct.

The city then hired another consultant, West Monroe Partners, to perform a two-phase audit of their water meter program. The results from Monroe’s Phase 1 audit said there were problems but not as significant as people thought. The Trib ran their own analysis and found Monroe’s standards were looser than a top national expert. Of course, the city defended their report saying it was independent and an honest assessment (costing $124,000).

Because of the lawsuit, officials put Phase 2 of the audit, as well as actions recommended by the consultant on hold such as random meter testing.

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