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County commissioners question $100,000 podcast contract

Van Turner, chairman of the Shelby County Commission

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Shelby County Commission will pay a contractor more than $100,000 over the next year to produce podcasts and social media for the commission, but now some commissioners are raising questions about the decision.

Since January, Memphis company Kudzukian has been broadcasting county commission meetings and interviews with commission chairman Van Turner in podcasts called “Commission in Action 2.0” and “The Chairman’s Perspective.”

Kudzukian produces several podcasts found on platforms like Apple, including “Best In Blue” with local law enforcement, “Funky Politics,” “Riffin’ on Jazz” and “R&R on Sports.” In a proposal to the county, the company says it podcasts are aimed at “enhancing civic engagement and promoting government transparency.”

This week, commissioners approved a resolution through a consent vote to award Kudzukian a contract that will continue those podcasts through June 30, 2020, with two possible contract extensions, for $109,800.

The vote was taken without discussion this week, and Turner, who sponsored the resolution, says it was done according to county rules.

But afterwards, commissioner Amber Mills said the decision left her scratching her head.

“I completely agree we need to get information out about what is happening at the County Commission. I am just not sure this is the best avenue at this time,” Mills said. “My quick research this weekend showed minimal to no views on these shows on YouTube and the same small numbers on other venues these programs are placed.

“Also, the bid process was not done using the normal bid process. We were told it was placed online and this is the only company that replied and not many people do this line of work … podcasts and marketing.”

Mark Billingsley, incoming chairman of the commission, called the information he received on the contract “not accurate and misleading.”  He said the vote needs to be revisited, or Mayor Lee Harris needs to veto the vote.

“I am very disappointed that the information we received regarding the podcasts was not accurate and misleading. This item needs to be immediately revisited or vetoed by Mayor Harris,” Billingsley said. “Our body wants better communication tools including podcasts, but within reasonable costs. This item also needs to go through a better competitive bidding process.”

Turner, in response, said that “the deal is not overpriced” and that Mills’ comments “may result from the fact that Commissioner Mills is still unaware of all of our policies and is still learning our Shelby County procurement procedures.”

“If Commissioner Mills has evidence of malfeasance regarding this process, then I think she should present the evidence and file a formal complaint.  To that end, I have copied our County Attorney,” Turner said. “However, in reality, the fact is that Commissioner Mills probably cannot file a formal complaint as neither I nor the Commission staff has done anything wrong.  Proper procedures regarding this procurement were followed and subjective confusion about the process does not mean that this process was non-compliant.”

He also said he was taken aback at Billingsley’s suggestion of a veto on an item he voted for and a podcast on which he’d been a guest.

“Chairman-Elect Billingsley appeared on the podcast and sang its praises during the production,” Turner said.

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