Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Written 2/20/2008

OK. How About This Explanation?

Oconee County officials have spent some time this week offering up explanations for the discrepancies between the procedures followed during the first round of bidding for the upgrade of the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant and the second.

The County made the bids submitted in response to the June 29 Request for Proposal available to me on August 29, 2007, in response to an open records request I filed on August 16. The County has refused to make available the bids submitted in response to the November 16, 2007, RFP.

Administrative Officer Alan Theriault sent me an email message on Monday (2/18/2008) telling me that I was allowed to have access to the first round of bids because the Board of Commissioners had "rejected" all the bids on August 2, before I submitted my open records request.

After I wrote back to Theriault and pointed out that the BOC met on August 7, not August 2, and that the official minutes reported that "no action was taken" by the Board on the bids, Theriault offered another explanation.

In an email message he sent me today (2/20/2008), he said that since the BOC took no action at the August 7 meeting, the project "was considered abandoned at that point."

Not until the September 4 meeting, however, did Theriault report to the Board that the County was going to readvertise the bids. He gave no explanation at the meeting for his action.

Adam Thompson, the Oconee County reporter for the Athens Banner-Herald, told me today that County Attorney Daniel Haygood gave him another explanation for the discrepancy in procedures.

Haygood said, according to Thompson, that I was given access to the bids in Late August because Chris Thomas, then the Utility Department head, had already delivered to the Board of Commissioners (at the August 7 meeting) the recommendation that Jordan Jones & Goulding be selected as the winning bid.

In the second round of bidding, however, Theriault told me on December 26, 2007, that I would not have access to the submitted bids until after the Board of Commissioners had made its decision on the winning bid, not after a recommendation was made.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis announced a change in that procedure only on January 29, 2008, after the Banner-Herald ran a story about a complaint I filed with the state Attorney General about the closed-door policy regarding the bids.

Reporter Thompson told me about Haygood’s explanation for the discrepancy by way of asking me to respond to it. I told him I thought it was interesting that Haygood and Theriault hadn’t coordinated their explanations.

Theriault had difficulty coming up with an explanation for why the County selected Jimmy Parker from Precision Planning Inc. to head the Selection Committee to review the bids the second time around rather than allow John Hatcher, the Utility Department director, to do so. Chris Thomas, the head of the Utility Department at the time, chaired the Selection Committee for the first round of bidding.

Theriault answered in his email on Monday by telling me that Parker "participated with the review" the first time around .

I wrote him back and said that I had asked why Parker was chairing the Committee the second time, when he had not done so the first.

Today Theriault wrote back that "there does not appear to be any difference" between chairing a committee and merely being a member of it.

I raised the question of these two discrepancies in procedures in an email message I sent to Chairman Davis and Theriault on the morning of February 15. I’ve put that message and Theriault’s responses, which were copied to Chairman Davis, here for review.

So why did the County change its procedures for the second round of bidding?

My examination of the bids in the first round showed a significant irregularity in the bidding process. The County had given at least some bidders at a presubmittal conference the tip that it was interested in abandoning membrane filtration for the Rocky Branch upgrade. The recommended bidder proposed doing just that.

In the second round of bidding, the County committed to membrane filtration, but it allowed for alternative technologies that could have significant impact on how the plant operates. Emil Beshara, the head of the Public Works Department, told me the County did not know what bidders were going to propose.

The County wants to keep the public from knowing what technology it favors until late in the decision-making process.

By having Parker chair the Selection Committee, the County removed from the immediate control of County officials the records of the review. This made it less likely they would fall into the hands of the public, though state law forbids the County from using outside consultants to hide public records.

How certain am I that these two explanations are the correct ones for the discrepancy in procedures between the two bids?

At the least, they fit the facts a lot better than those offered by Theriault and Haygood.