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County government may add public relations specialist

By Justin Boron

Clayton County government may be getting a mouthpiece out of next year's budget.

Preliminary proposals show the addition of a $55,000 public relations specialist under the Board of Commissioners Office fiscal year 2006 budget.

County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said the position would be intended to handle media inquiries, disseminate the chairman's position on politically sensitive issues, and inform the public.

"We've come far enough along in the county that we need one," Bell said.

A public relations specialist would also alleviate the media burden that Bell said is currently being placed on the county commission's staff, particularly Suzanne Brown, who has been splitting duties between county clerk and public information officer.

The county's approach to media inquiries became more rigid early in Bell's administration when he circulated a memo that instructed department heads and county staff to refer all requests to Brown.

Under the previous chairman, department heads were permitted to give interviews without authorization or supervision of a public information officer.

Commissioner Wole Ralph also tangled with the county on the openness of the government.

After requesting staff recommendations for the budget and being denied, Ralph had to make a formal open records request to get them.

He said he wouldn't necessarily be opposed to the new position, just so long as it worked to make the government more transparent.

County commissioners Virginia Gray and Charley Griswell declined to comment.

Bell could not say whether he would contract the job to a consultant at first, or immediately hire someone in-house for the job.

Clayton County Public Schools, Fulton County, and DeKalb County also have positions designated specifically to handle media inquiries.

Whether the county will actually add the position to its budget and what duties it will be assigned is still not set in stone since the budget process is ongoing.

But local public relations officials typically are charged with maintaining a flow of information between the leaders and their constituents, said Ruth Ann Lariscy, a professor of advertising and public relations in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

She said the position also can be used to assess public opinion and contribute that evaluation to the policy making process.

"We do the research, find what public opinion is, work with elected and appointed persons, providing input about public opinion, among other things, and contribute to policy development that is more meaningful because it has public input," she said.

The new public relations position is just a small segment of the budget's $33.4 million in expenditure improvements calculated from budget requests from the department heads.

The budget needs to be complete by the beginning of fiscal year in July.