Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Written 1/16/2008

Keep ‘Em in the Dark

The County confirmed its plans to keep citizens in the dark about the second round of bids on the upgrade of Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant last week by officially denying my Open Records Request for access to the bids and the review documents.

In a letter dated January 10, 2008, County Administrative Office Alan Theriault rejected my request on January 7 for access to the nine submitted bids and to the documents produced by the County during the evaluation of the bids.

The County also denied me access to other documents I requested regarding correspondence between Consultant Jimmy Parker and the County relating to the evaluation of the nine bids.

All I was given was copies of nine sheets of paper, including a blank evaluation form.

In denying the request, Theriault cited state law allowing the County to deny access to bids. The law does not require the County to deny access.

The County had allowed us access to the bids and the evaluation materials during the first round of bidding in late summer.

My examination of those bids showed that the County had given tips to bidders that it would entertain a design not specified in the formal Request for Proposal (RFP). The recommended bidder proposed use of a technologically less sophisticated design that could not treat the water to the same standard as the membrane filtration system specified in the RFP.

The low bidder had stuck by the published specifications and was passed over by the reviewers. In addition, the recommended bidder actually had drawn up the written specifications for the plant that was included in the RFP.

After I pointed out these problems in a posting to my blog (see my posting of 9/2/2007 below), the County tossed out the bids and decided to rebid the process.

The documents the County did release to me when I went to the courthouse on January 11 indicate that the County did hold a meeting of the review committee on January 4. As I reported on 12/28/2007 (below), Theriault denied me advance notice of that meeting in an email message he sent me on 12/21/2007.

The documents the County did released to me include correspondence between Theriault and Jimmy Parker from Precision Planning regarding how they were going to involve the Board of Commissioners in the decision. Parker is chairing the evaluation committee.

Parker suggested that he present a short list of three firms to the BOC for final approval and request the Board’s authorization that the Chairman of the Board and the staff negotiate with the three firms.

"I just want to make sure we cover all the political bases," Parker said.

Theriault said this issue would be discussed at the January 4 meeting. The notes I received do not indicate the outcome of that discussion.

I have talked with two legal experts with considerable experience with the Georgia laws governing public access to meetings. Both said they believe that the County violated state law in closing the review meeting and indicated that the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled clearly that official meetings of almost all sorts are open to the public.

Any action taken at an illegally closed meeting can be declared void by the courts.

The County did release to me a copy of correspondence between Theriault and BOC Chairman Melvin Davis in which Theriault advises Davis on how the County can close the bidding process. Theriault repeated the statement he made to me that the public "could compromise the entire process."

The response of the nine bidders to the second RFP is important because the second RFP asks bidders to submit a base and an alternate design. The base design should follow the original membrane design specifications submitted to the Georgia EPD as part of the application for the permit to discharge treated sewage water into Barber Creek. The alternate design calls for membrane filtration as a tertiary step, rather than the use of a membrane biological reaction.

I have spoken with an expert on sewage plant designs who has assured me that this difference is not a trivial one.

The decision by the County administration–under the control of Chairman Melvin Davis–guarantees that we will never know which of the nine bidders was proposing to use a technology to treat the water to the highest quality at the lowest price.

Yet we are the ones who are going to have to deal with the water discharged and pay for the $8-10 million plant.

This is a County administration that has demonstrated once again that it prefers to make important decisions that affect the public behind closed doors.