Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh’s office is seeking a contractor to help turn two rooms in her City Hall office suite into a television studio, complete with screen backdrops, a control room and multiple cameras — a project that could cost as much as $150,000.
The plans are described in a request for proposals the city issued last week. Potential vendors are being asked to respond by mid-March.
Tonia Lee, the general manager of the city’s television network CharmTV, said the studio is envisioned as a way of better connecting citizens with their government.
“The thinking from the Office of Cable’s perspective is to enhance government transparency so citizens can see on as many platforms as possible events live from those rooms,” Lee said.
Pugh’s office has been focused in recent months on overhauling her public relations operation, an effort she said began with the departure of Anthony McCarthy, her previous spokesman. The mayor has agreed to pay a consultant up to $40,000 to provide media advice for three months. She also has launched a video series intended to give an unvarnished look at her administration and has placed opinion pieces in local newspapers.
“We are working hard to write a new narrative,” Pugh wrote in The Washington Post this month, “one that reflects our progress and determination to end violence by ending the conditions that are its undeniable cause.”
But the efforts haven’t been entirely smooth. The mayor’s focus on the narrative has attracted critics who say she is more concerned with how Baltimore looks than with fixing its problems.
In an interview, Pugh initially said she wasn’t familiar with the television studio plans but later said they were a good idea: “It’s called up-to-date technology.”
Pugh said the upgrades could be used by regular television stations and would be paid for out of money the city receives from a monthly 50-cent surcharge on Comcast cable bills.
The mayor said she’s working hard to make the city better and to connect residents with vital services.
“My day starts at 4:30 a.m. and I get home at midnight because I’m not just focused on the narrative,” she said.
Pugh said she first began talking about changing the narrative after hearing Catholic Archbishop William Lori raise the idea at a New Year’s Eve service.
“That’s not Catherine Pugh talking, I just echoed what was said,” she said.
After a Baltimore Sun reporter shared word of the television studio plan online, social media users were quick to pounce. Several questioned whether it was a good use of public money at a time when many public schools recently went for days without heating, particularly when free cellphone apps provide an easy way to share live video online.
Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College, said it’s not unreasonable for a mayor of a big city to have a broadcasting facility and that it could be put to good use increasing government transparency. The criticism has emerged, Kromer said, because it’s coming along with the other new communications efforts.
“A lot of folks look at that not as a positive, but as spin,” she said. “This becomes the physical embodiment of that spin.”
Lee said her focus for the television studio is on being able to broadcast the mayor’s weekly news conference live from City Hall.
But the contracting document lays out a more ambitious vision tied to an extensive overhaul of the mayor’s ceremonial room and an adjoining conference room. A detailed breakdown of the work that the contractor would be expected to provide runs to nine paragraphs.
The document says it’s important for the mayor to be able to broadcast live to her constituents at any time.
“The lack of Livestream TV capacity negatively impacts the Mayor’s ability to drive economic development and social stability, because it limits her ability to communicate with the public on a live basis,” it says.
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Lee said the document was written in a way to get potential vendors to “think out of the box” and that her network won’t necessarily need all the functions it lays out.
My day starts at 4:30 a.m. and I get home at midnight because I’m not just focused on the narrative.— Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh
Over the weekend, the consultant Pugh hired, Gregory Tucker, got into a dispute about his role with Justine Barron, a former city resident who produced a podcast about the death of Freddie Gray. The exchange ended with Tucker deleting his Twitter account, after exhorting Barron three times to “pay attention.”
“It was an odd way for a media consultant representing the mayor and city to conduct himself online and respond to fair criticism,” Barron said in a Twitter message to The Sun. “And odder that he would delete his account. His job involves public relations.”
Tucker said in an interview that he was sorry if anyone was offended by his comments.
“I guess I’m a human and I took offense a bit,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t handle that perfectly.”
Pugh said she didn’t follow Twitter and was happy with Tucker’s work.
“When Mr. Anthony McCarthy left it gave me an opportunity to look at our overall communication strategy across our agencies and with the public,” Pugh said. Tucker “is working with me to design that, and I am quite pleased.”