The campaign manager for Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard’s 2019 reelection bid has joined the Carmel Redevelopment Commission to lead its business retention and expansion efforts, despite concerns from some city officials.
During a Dec. 3 virtual meeting, the CRC approved a contract to pay $7,750 per month, or $93,000 per year, to The Sisko Group, founded by Laken Sisko, an Indianapolis resident and former campaign manager for Brainard. CRC commissioners Dave Bowers, Bill Brooks and Adam Campagna voted in favor, with Jeff Worrell, who also serves on the Carmel City Council, casting the lone vote in opposition.
CRC Director Henry Mestetsky said the newly created role will assist the mayor and the city’s economic development team in attracting and retaining top companies in Carmel, with a focus on downtown and the U.S. 31 corridor. Sisko has been tasked with enhancing relationships with existing corporate citizens, decision makers at businesses looking to relocate, office brokers, economic development professionals and site selectors.
“My first priority is to stand alongside the CEOs of the 130 corporate headquarters in Carmel, many of whom I consider friends, to ensure we are providing all of the necessary resources for them to remain and succeed,” Sisko stated in an email. “My second is to serve as an advocate for those looking to relocate to Carmel both in state and nationwide. I have represented the mayor in the past on his campaign and he has entrusted me to do the same while retaining and recruiting corporate headquarters alongside of him and city staff.”
Sisko founded The Sisko Group in 2011, and through it has run fundraising campaigns for nonprofits and served as a consultant to politicians. Before running Brainard’s successful 2019 reelection campaign, she had experience working with former U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks, Secretary of State Connie Lawson, State Sen. Erin Houchin and incoming Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita during a bid for Congress, according to her LinkedIN profile.
Despite the political successes, city councilor Sue Finkam said she would have preferred to see the city hire a candidate with more relevant experience.
“(Mestetsky) weighted her relationships higher than her economic development experience,” Finkam said. “While relationships are important, when we’re talking about economic development in today’s world, where data is key as much as positioning the city as a desirable place to do business, I would’ve weighted it exactly the opposite.”
“I asked the mayor and (Mestetsky) how they were planning to position this hire because of her role in (Brainard’s) campaign, and neither seemed concerned,” Finkam said. “I don’t like the appearance it gives at all.”
In an email, Mestetsky — who said at the November 2020 CRC meeting he expects the new role to eventually move from a contracted position to a city hire — stated Sisko has the right skill set for the job despite not previously working for a government entity.
“It’s hard to find a better person for the role than Laken. She has built her own business for over a decade, establishing a broad network of corporate, governmental and political relationships,” Mestetsky stated. “She is a self-starter, a highly motivated and organized leader, knows how to sell a product (especially when that product is Carmel), and has spent years engaging with the types of c-suite-level decision-makers that will bring the next set of companies to Carmel.”
Mestetsky views her connection to the Brainard campaign as a benefit.
“The fact that she was the mayor’s former campaign manager is a positive. It’s a good thing to have talented people with private sector experience in government,” Mestetsky stated. “We’re fortunate to have someone with Laken’s skill set and relationships transition to the public sector to fight to bring jobs to Carmel.”
Brainard also touted Sisko’s experience building relationships in the private sector as making her “a good fit” for the new CRC role.
“There’s a lot of work involved (in the job),” he said. “Because somebody had a paid job in a campaign doesn’t disqualify them for another job.”
Sisko, who has undergraduate degrees in business, international studies and Spanish and a Master of Public Administration from IUPUI, said her background in business and politics serves her well in the new role.
“I have worked extensively with the corporate community in Indiana for the past decade, particularly in central Indiana,” Sisko stated. “I have also worked closely with the mayor and his leadership team, making me uniquely qualified to broker corporate relationships on behalf of the city, for the city and with the city.”
Worrell said he voted against the contract with The Sisko Group because, like Finkam, he thought it lacked certain protections for the city.
“I’ve never seen the city hire what I would classify as someone more on the sales side versus engineers, accountants or attorneys,” he said. “This person is a contractor, so would they then be allowed to go peddle the info that they learned for Carmel to other municipalities? What if the relationship doesn’t work out?”
Worrell said his role on the CRC was to review and vote on the details of the contract, not the specific person selected for the job, although he acknowledges the choice raises eyebrows for some.
“It is an obvious issue that anyone might question,” he said. “But as in any hiring situation within the city, I can voice my concern, which I did, but I have no authority to go any further than that.”
The hiring of Sisko potentially raises several ethical concerns, according to Abraham Schwab, a professor of philosophy at Purdue University-Fort Wayne.
In addition to potential conflicts of interests, Schwab said selecting a candidate without previous experience in the field for a job leads to questions about the hiring process — especially in the public sector, which uses taxpayer dollars.
“It’s not only something which you’re worried about questions of inappropriate favor being expressed toward some people, but you’re also worried about poor stewardship of public funds,” he said.