Saturday, January 26, 2008

Written 1/26/2008

Bids Closed to Public to be Discussed by BOC

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners will get an update on the bids for the upgrade of the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant at its meeting on Tuesday, January 29, according to the draft agenda released by Oconee County Clerk Gina Lindsey on Friday afternoon, January 25.

Rocky Branch will be the first item on the agenda, but it is not possible to know if the Board will be asked to take action or anything about the bids themselves or the review process since the County decided to close the entire process to citizens.

The County holds a state permit to discharge up to 1 million gallons per day of treated sewage water from an upgraded Rocky Branch plant into Barber Creek, which flows through the northern part of the County.

Citizen scrutiny of the first round of bidding in late summer showed that the County had given tips to at least some bidders that it was interested in using a less sophisticated treatment technology than was called for in the Request for Proposal.

County officials recommended that a bidder who intended to use the lesser technology be given the contract, but the County threw out the bids after these irregularities were exposed.

In the second RFP, the County offered bidders the option of using both the original technology and a second technology.

Feng Jiang, who did graduate work involving these technologies at the University of Georgia, informed me that they are not equivalent and that the only way to know which will produce the higher quality water is to know the characteristics of the sewage coming in to the plant.

Board of Commissioners member Chuck Horton, who attended a closed meeting of the bid Selection Committee, said he did not believe the Committee was interested in recommending an inferior technology. He admitted, however, that he did not know the difference between the two technologies or the implications of selecting one over the other.

The Selection Committee, with Horton present, met on January 4. Members of the Committee are John Hatcher, Utilities Department director, Emil Beshara, Public Works Department director, Alan Theriault, County administrative officer, Jim Sunta, from Precision Planning Inc., and Jimmy Parker, also from Precision Planning.

Parker has been given the responsibility by the County for handling the bid review process, and he set up the January 4 meeting.

The County has acknowledged the names of the nine bidders, but not other information about the bidders or the bids.

I asked to be informed about the time and place of the Selection Committee meeting, but I was told by Theriault that I would not be. I learned that the Committee met only through an open records request I filed on January 7. I also was denied access to the bids and to details of the evaluation of those bids.

While Georgia law does allow–but not require–counties to close bids, it requires open access to public meetings, with limited exceptions. I have filed a complaint with the Attorney General about the County’s unwillingness to post notice about the January 4 meeting.

I also contacted the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and provide it a copy of my complaint to the Attorney General. Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Foundation, wrote to Theriault on January 23, 2008, asking him to offer an "explanation of what will be done to remendy these actions that go against the interests of the public."

At the BOC meeting on Tuesday, members of the Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek will ask the BOC not to take any action on the Rocky Branch bids until the public has been given an opportunity to review them and have access to the evaluation process.

Commissioners Margaret Hale and Horton have told me personally they want citizens to have access to the bids. Commission Jim Luke has told me he does not.

Commissioner Don Norris usually supports what County officials, such as Theriault, propose. Those officials are appointed by and report to Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis.

Two other items on the January 29 agenda also are important. One is a discussion of Transfer of Development Rights, which advocates argue could be used to protect the rural parts of the County from development. The other is Impact Fees, which many counties impose on developers to cover costs associated with development.

These two items follow the Rocky Branch update on the draft agenda.