Sunday, February 17, 2008

Written 2/17/2008

The Attorney General and Duck Quacking

The Georgia Attorney General's office, as part of its mediation program to handle citizen complaints about issues related to the state's Open Records Act, has asked Oconee County to respond to my complaint about the County’s denial of access to the Selection Committee reviewing bids for the upgrade of the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan E. Ritter wrote to Oconee County Attorney Daniel Haygood on February 14, 2008, asking him to "let me know in the next 10 days or so what your response is" to my complaint. Ritter forwarded that complaint, which I wrote on January 17, 2008, to Haygood.

In the meantime, I received a letter from Haygood, written on February 13, 2008, again denying me again access to a second meeting of the Selection Committee and to documents produced by that Committee.

I had written to Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis on February 6, 2008, asking to be informed of a meeting of the Selection Committee announced at the January 29, 2008, meeting of the Board of Commissioners. I also asked again for access to the review documents of that Committee. I had copied that message to Ritter.

My complaint to the Attorney General was filed after I had been denied access to a January 4, 2008, meeting of the Selection Committee as well as the documents produced by that Committee based on its evaluation of the nine bids submitted for design work for the upgrade of the Rocky Branch sewage plant.

Ritter also wrote to me on February 14, 2008, indicating that he was focusing his inquiry with the County on the "open meetings portion" of my complaint. In the letter to Haygood, however, he also notes that I have complained that I was "not allowed to review public documents that were of the same nature as documents" I was allowed to view previously.

The County provided me access to the records of the evaluation of bids submitted for the Rocky Branch upgrade in late summer in response to an open records request I made. The County ultimately tossed out those bids and began the process again in November.

Haygood, in his letter of February 13, said my letter to Chairman Davis "mischaracterizes" the review process for the bids. He said the County has hired Precision Planning Inc. to assist with the review process and that PPI "has requested certain County staff to evaluate the bids."

In the letter, Haygood does acknowledge that members of the Board of Commissioners asked to be notified of the meetings of this group and that PPI has notified them.

According to the Request for Proposals itself, however, "A Selection Committee appointed by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners will evaluate the Proposals using a 100 point scale." The RFP then provides a table listing the criteria to be used in the evaluations and their weights in computing the final score for the 100-point scale.

When Jimmy Parker came before the Board of Commissioners at its December 18, 2007, meeting, he announced the membership of a committee to review the proposals. No member of the Board of Commissioners objected to the composition of the Committee, made up of Parker, another PPI staff member, the head of the County’s Utility Department, the head of the County’s Public Works Department, and County Administrative Office Alan Theriault.

On December 28, 2007, Jimmy Parker from PPI called together what he called the "RFP Review Team" and attached a copy of the table listing the criteria and weights for evaluation identical to the one in the RFP itself.

The BOC has appointed no other Selection Committee, and Parker’s "Review Team" has acted as specified for the Selection Committee in the RFP.

On December 21, 2007, Parker sent an email to the "Review Team Members" as well as the BOC members announcing the January 4 meeting.

Commissioner Chuck Horton announced at the BOC meeting of January 29, 2008, that he attended that January 4 meeting. He also has told me in an email message of earlier today that the Committee has met again. He did not indicate whether he attended.

In denying me access to the documents produced by the Selection Committee, Haygood, in his letter of February 13, again said the Committee was not created by the BOC but by PPI. He also said it is his view that the County can deny access to these documents as part of the bidding process.

In addition, he raised the question of "whether the evaluations are actually County records or not" after stating that they were created by PPI.

On this issue, however, state law seems to be very clear. The law "disallows" state agencies, such as the BOC, "placing or causing such items to be placed in the hands of a private person or entities for the purpose of avoiding disclosure."

At this point, it seems the County either has to acknowledge that the existing "Review Team" is, in fact, the Selection Committee specified in the Request for Proposal or admit that it is not following the review procedure specified in that RFP.

Basically, if it walks like a Selection Committee and quacks like a Selection Committee, I’m inclined to believe it is a Selection Committee, even if Haygood says it is not.

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