Thursday, March 4, 2010

Who is Avakian? The Olentangy Schools Story

Earlier this year, the City of Xenia hired consultant Joel Gagne from Avakian Consulting to "improve the city's image" -- at least that's the story the City Manager tells. But why would you as a Xenia resident believe this? Why was Avakian awarded a no-bid, $25,000 contract after an "emergency" meeting and a hurried contract signing process? Why did all these things happen right before and after the Council's vote for the tax levy, and before the May 4 election? You may not like the answer.

Joel Gagne is no marketing guy, nor is he your average consultant. He had worked in the Bill Clinton White House and for several election campaigns, like Wesley Clark's campaign, Paul Wellstone, and Robert Reich's gubernatorial campaign. These are hardcore, Washington DC political hacks. And as Gagne is not just a backwoods marketing consultant, and rather a hardcore political consultant with extensive experience in campaigning, why is this guy on the City of Xenia's payroll? Why now? Why is the City of Xenia spending badly needed local funds on a Washington D.C. lobbyist? Well, the example of Olentangy School District may give us an answer -- Gagne is successful at manipulating public opinion and getting tax levies pushed through and passed.

It is against Ohio Election Law for a school district to use public funds to publicize or sell a ballot initiative to the voters, but this apparently did not stop the Olentangy School District from signing a contract with Avakian Associates (aka Avakian Consulting) in January, 2008. Local residents in the Columbus area were as outraged about this two years ago as we are today about the City of Xenia's misuse of public funds. A Columbus area resident wrote about these events back in 2008, pointing out that the Olentangy School District, just like the City of Xenia, bypassed the normal purchasing procedures for the district and had the Franklin County Education Services department invoice the Olentangy School District (on behalf of Avakian), and disbursed funds to Avakian via Franklin County as opposed to a direct and clear invoice/payment approach that would indicate a violation of election laws; the Purchase Order description for Avakian's Services was misleadingly labeled "Superintendent Outreach" or "Superintendend Search." (see a copy of the purchase orders here)

Yet in an email message between Rebecca Jenkins, treasurer for the Olentangy School District and Jennifer Smith, a member of the board of education, Jenkins writes

The services were to aid with the levy, were used last year...specifically hired by Scott and Carole Dorn Bell - (click to read the entire email exchange)

Carole Dorn-Bell, the district communications director left the school district and now works for Avakian. She is also currently working as a consultant for the City of Xenia with Joel Gagne.

The entire time this was happening, the school board was claiming that Avakian was there to educate the Olentangy community, provide marketing and improve the image of the school district -- does any of this sound familiar to Xenia residents? It is the same playbook used by the City of Xenia today when justifying the contract with Avakian. Mr. Percival, Xenia City Manager claims Avakian is providing "consulting services." Emails between Xenia City Employees and Avakian prove otherwise: Avakian's sole purpose in this relationship is to help Xenia pass the tax levy, using public dollars for that purpose.

Furthermore, in February 2008, shortly after Olentangy signed the contract with Avakian, the communications director for the district, Carole Dorn-Bell emailed Joel Gagne (the same consultant hired by the City of Xenia) and Paul Fallon, of Fallon Research, another political consulting firm, to strategize how the proposed tax levy can be voted in -- note that she was still on government payroll at this time. Two of them were using using personal email addresses to avoid the Ohio Sunshine laws and keep the public in dark over what is going on, however the emails were still legally obtained by a Columbus area resident.

Carole Dorn-Bell demanded that a "cut list" needs to be created in order to "scare" voters into voting for the levy (cuts in services, etc).
I must have cut list. Unless people can see how it affects them, forget it. I can provide loads of anichdotal (sic) evidence on that one. Third, the board has to -- early on -- come up with the list so that people can see there are no sacred cows. The list is the list. And they have to stick with it.
Joel Gagne from Avakian responded saying
"the time for political pain is way overdue"
-- referring to another city's attempt to pass a levy without providing a list of cuts to voters.
Paul Fallon responded saying,
"Candidly, I also think you should attempt to cull some private campaign fund dollars to have the ability to test questions in the survey that you do not want to be subjected to the Sunshine Law, because they are publicly-funded."
Yes, avoiding openness and the law, and hiding the real message from the voters seems to be the way to go. But even then, Paul Fallon's response cuts right to the issue for Xenia City residents; the City of Xenia used public funds in 2009 for a survey to assess how the voters in the city would respond to a proposed tax levy. The City was and is developing a campaign strategy on our dime.

If you are a Xenia resident and believe that Avakian was only hired for "improving the city's image," you have been suckered and professionals. Instead of helping our image, the arrangements made by the City of Xenia is splitting and dividing our community and creating discord among residents, while wasting tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money.


  1. Another question is why isn't the Franklin County Prosecutor's office investigating this? These people should be in jail.

  2. This should outrage the citizens, it does not make sense for a city to be asking for more money but spending so much to try to convince people to vote for more taxes. This money could have been put to much better use for the community.

  3. Forget Franklin County! Why isn't Stephen Haller looking into this?

  4. Wait until they start spending money on "special elections" at $20,000 a pop.

  5. I read your lawsuit and the exhibits, and you are right, it is clear that Elected and Appointed Officials are with intent sidestepping the law and hood-winking the citizens, thank you. Three things needs to be done. VOTE NO on this issue, consider RECALL on the 4 Council people that can be run out of Office, and let's do a CHARTER CHANGE.

  6. Avakian is not a marketing expert- or a branding expert- or an advertising expert. He's a political consultant. He can barely put up a website.
    I've written about him several times:
    The political insiders do a good job of taking care of each other.
    There are a lot of companies better qualified to help Xenia with their image problems, but Avakian isn't the right place to turn. Of course, they can always hire Congressman Turner's wife- and the "Turner Effect" on a no-bid contract to come up with something snappy like "get midwest" for a mere $900K
    Oops- been there, done that.