Generating positive press about New Mexico’s burgeoning recreational cannabis industry is a high-dollar endeavor.
The state’s new Cannabis Control Division is paying an Albuquerque-based public relations specialist $125 an hour under a no-bid, $64,750 consulting services contract designed to make the agency look good.
The rate for Heather Brewer, president of HB Strategies, is two to three times the pay earned by some of the state’s highest-paid communications workers.
Brewer’s contract calls for her to amplify the division’s “successful development and implementation of rules and regulations in the lead up to the legal sale of adult-use cannabis” through earned media, or positive publicity that doesn’t involve paid advertising.
It also calls for Brewer to maintain “consistent, positive messaging around the benefits of the [recreational marijuana] program to the state and the ongoing support of the Medical Cannabis Program.”
Bernice Geiger, public information officer and marketing director for the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department, which oversees the Cannabis Control Division, did not respond to a request for a telephone interview. But she wrote in an email the amount of Brewer’s contract did not require a competitive bidding process under the state’s procurement law.
“HB Strategies has years of communications and coordination experience, and we are fortunate to have their expertise and contributions to our team during this exciting time launching a new industry across New Mexico,” she wrote.
Asked why she wasn’t handling the division’s public relations as the department’s spokeswoman and marketing director, Geiger wrote she had an “existing full roster” of job duties and responsibilities.
“Contracting with additional communications support allows us to best serve the public while working to ensure a smooth launch of recreational cannabis and the creation of a new division, as well as provide the Department with additional resources to be responsive to external and internal communications,” she wrote.
The contract calls for Brewer to manage and promote a Facebook page for the division, as well as a Twitter account — neither of which she’s done.
Geiger indicated the department had decided to take a different approach after the contract was inked.
“For branding purposes, the department determined it will have one social media account that includes our 7 divisions under one umbrella, and content is provided by all divisions, which includes HB Strategies contributing to social media efforts regarding the launch of recreational cannabis,” Geiger wrote.
Retail sales of recreational marijuana are poised to begin in New Mexico in less than a week.
Brewer, who is normally responsive to media inquiries, is on vacation for spring break and did not return a message seeking comment.
The initial contract with Brewer, signed in August, was for $32,375, including gross receipts taxes. It was scheduled to expire Dec. 31. But before it ended, the department and Brewer signed an amendment that extended the contract to June 30 for “additional service pursuant to the original scope of work.”
Geiger did not respond when asked who had negotiated the contract with Brewer.
Documents obtained under a public records request show Brewer sent her first invoice, for the month of September, to John Blair, who was then the department’s deputy superintendent.
“Please let me know what you need from me/her to get it paid,” Blair, who is now Santa Fe’s city manager, wrote in an email to to the chief procurement officer of the state’s Administrative Services Division.
Blair did not return a message seeking comment Friday.
According to their LinkedIn pages, Blair and Brewer both worked for then-U.S. Rep. Martin Heinrich around the same time. Brewer served as district director for Heinrich, now a U.S. senator, from January 2009 to December 2012. Blair served as Heinrich’s legislative and communications director from January 2009 to January 2013, according to his LinkedIn page.
All of Brewer’s invoices from September to January total exactly 60 hours of work for each month. Her invoices track her work on cannabis-related matters, from drafting news releases to talking with reporters.
Asked whether the $125-an-hour rate was reasonable, Maddy Hayden, acting communications director for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, did not respond.
Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s press secretary, instead referred inquiries on the question to the Regulation and Licensing Department.
“I will note that while the overwhelming majority of state communications staff are full-time staff, some as classified state employees and some as exempt hires, the state does utilize contracts for additional required services that support the state’s mission to serve the people of New Mexico,” Sackett wrote.
For 10 months of part-time work, Brewer will be paid more or about as much as some of the state’s full-time public information officers earn in a year. For example, the spokeswoman for the Higher Education Department is paid $60,900 annually and the spokesman for the Tourism Department gets $65,000 a year, according to the New Mexico Sunshine Portal.
Geiger defended Brewer’s hourly rate.
“HB Strategies brings years of high-level communications experience, and the compensation is commensurate with that experience,” she wrote. “It’s also important to note that overall costs for an independent contractor are likely to be less, given that they are paid a flat rate without the overhead costs of payroll taxes, employee benefits, etc.”