Monday, February 04, 2008

Written 2/4/2008

Crack in the Policy of Secrecy

Lost in the media reports about the Board of Commissioners meeting on January 29 was a major concession made by the Oconee County administration regarding when the bids for the upgrade for the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant will be available to the public.

The public will get to see those bids before the Board of Commissioners votes, not after, Chairman Melvin Davis said on the 29th.

"When final recommendations are made to this BOC," Davis said, "All proposals and bids will be public at that time and placed on the web site for review, and the BOC will not act on that proposal or recommendation at that time to allow plenty of time for public input."

This contrasts with what Oconee County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault told me in an email message on December 26, 2007. Theriault said the bids "will be available to the public at such time as the final award of the contract is made or the project is terminated or abandoned."

Chairman Davis also made a second promise at the meeting after Friends of Barber Creek Vice President Tim Price reiterated the request that the County agree not to discharge water from the Rocky Branch plant into Barber Creek at times of flooding, to treat the water to the highest level technology allows, and to provide for independent monitoring of the plant.

"Rest assured that this Board of Commissioners wants to do everything possible to make sure we don’t do anything that is detrimental to the environment, the creek, to make sure that our treatment is to the highest quality that we can afford to handle. I think the request for proposal asks for the best treatment that we can possibly get as far as membrane filtration and tertiary treatment."

"I hear I have your word on that," Price said.

"I think that is what this Board of Commissioners desires to do. There is no question about that," Davis replied.

Davis’ response does point to the importance of making the bids available to the public before the BOC votes.

The RFP specifies that the bid must be for a design that uses membrane filtration, but it allows two options.

The first is the vertical loop reactor and membrane biological reactor specified in the application the County made for the state permit to discharge the treated sewage water from the plant into Barber Creek.

The second design is called a suspended growth biological process for secondary treatment with tertiary membrane filtration.

I have spoken with two experts on sewage plants. Membranes are more central to the first design than the second, they said. Which type of plant will produce a better quality water is dependent on a number of things, I was told, including the ability to operate the plant correctly and the type of sewage being treated.

By examining the bids from first RFP issued in June of 2007, I discovered that the County had given a tip to at least some of the bidders that it was willing to abandon membrane filtration altogether.

In its bid, Jordan Jones & Goulding wrote that it was "delighted" to learn at the pre-proposal conference "that there is flexibility in your thinking." The letter continued that the Utility Department leadership was looking "for the most cost effective way of producing reuse water and meeting future discharge limits."

JJ&G proposed a plant without membrane filtration to save the County money. The Selection Committee recommended JJ&G receive the contract, but the BOC never was asked to vote on the recommendation.

Carter & Sloope, another bidder in that first round, also discussed alternatives to membrane filtration.

"It is our understanding that the County is having some concerns about the long-term O&M (Operating and Maintenance) expenses of membrane treatment plants."

It is because these bids are so important and can be so informative that I have filed an open records request to view them and to view the written reports of the Selection Committee. I also asked to be informed about the meeting the Selection Committee held to discuss the bids. I have been denied all of these things.

Davis’ promise on January 29 is the first crack in this policy of secrecy regarding the bids.

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