By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org
The rules are different at the Broward County Aviation Department.
Although the Broward County Commission in 2011 approved a major overhaul of the county’s procurement code, the rule changes only partially affected the Aviation Department, leaving the power to shape lucrative concession contracts in the hands of county bureaucrats.
Unlike large contracts that involve other parts of Broward County government, the county commission does not approve which airport vendor’s proposal will be accepted to negotiate a contract.
Aviation regulations state that once the county administrator sends a memo to the county commission listing how the concession bids are ranked, the bid ranked first will be accepted unless a commissioner expresses a concern within five working days.
A similar procedure was in place for all large county-purchasing contracts until the county commission overhauled the procurement code. Now, after a selection committee ranks the bids, all bids not involving aviation concessions go to the commission, which can approve, reject, return bids to the committee for reconsideration or re-rank bids by a super-majority vote.
When the commission takes up the bids, the companies that submitted bids have a right to speak. Under the Aviation Department’s concession procedure, companies are given no opportunity to speak to the commission.
Aviation concession contracts cover food and beverage sales, taxi service and retail and duty-free stores. The Aviation Department follows the county’s 2011 procurement code for all other contracts.
A BIDDER PROTESTS
MERABroward, a company that submitted a bid that proposed to take over and improve concessions at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport’s terminals 1 and 2, found out first hand about the difference in the rules.
Although county records show that MERABroward promised to pay the county the highest annual minimum fee, pay airport concession workers the highest hourly wages, invest more in capital improvements, and pay the county a higher percentage of retail proceeds, the Aviation Department’s Selection and Negotiation Committee on May 29 voted to recommend the multi-million dollar contract to another company, Host International.
The selection committee ranked the bid of Hojeij Brand Foods second and MERABroward’s proposal third. MERABroward has filed a formal protest.
Broward County’s “Cone of Silence” ordinance has prohibited MERABroward’s representatives from communicating its dissatisfaction to the county commissioners.
James Meyer, an attorney representing MERABroward, said in an interview that the commissioners probably are unaware of his company’s protest, which was sent to the Aviation Department‘s business manager and to the county‘s purchasing director.
“The Aviation Department can steer the selection process without any input from the commission,” Meyer said, adding that the selection system is subjective and lacks transparency.
The selection committee was comprised of five non-elected county officials. Three members were from the Aviation Department, one was from Port Everglades and one was an assistant to the county administrator.
On May 30, County Administrator Bertha Henry sent the commission a one-page memo listing the rankings. The memo provided no details of how the three companies compared and did not mention that MERABroward had officially protested that the selection committee’s rankings were “unfair and incorrect.”
No commissioner objected to the committee’s rankings and the Aviation Department has scheduled meetings with Host International to work out details of the contract.
When a contract is reached, the county commission will be asked to approve the deal in an up-or-down vote.
Host International is a large airport concession company, headquartered in Bethesda, Md., which has operations in 112 domestic and international airports. Hojeij, headquartered in Atlanta, operates in 10 airports.
MERABroward is headquartered in Lake Worth. It is a subsidiary of MERA Corporation, based in Cancun, Mexico. Mera operates in five airports in Mexico and another in Quito, Ecuador.
In its proposal, MERABroward guaranteed to pay the county at least $6.5 million annually. Host International’s offer was $4.6 million a year. Over a ten-year contract that works out to be about $19 million more than host, MERABroward lawyers Edward Pozzuoli and Stephanie Toothaker wrote in the protest.
County purchasing director Brenda Billingsley rejected July 17
MERABroward’s standing to protest, saying the company lacked a “substantial interest” in the matter because it was ranked third. Only a company ranked second, she wrote, has legal standing to protest.
MERABroward’s lawyer, James Meyer, said he’s seen no county rules that exclude his client from filing a protest for lack of standing. “We disagree with the county’s interpretation,” he said.
BrowardBulldog.org asked the Aviation Department to document the assertion that third-ranked bidders lack standing to protest, but did not receive a response.
The three companies pitched their proposals and fielded questions during an audiotaped meeting on May 29.
Billingsley has said the county code gives selection committee members “latitude to consider as much information as is necessary to make an informed decision” and do not have to use only the staff’s side-by-side analysis of the bids.
A review of the audio recording indicates that the selection committee appeared not to score the bids under an objective points system.
Yasmi Govin, director of Business Properties Management at the Aviation Department and chair of the selection committee, was skeptical of MeraBroward’s ability to deliver on its promises, including its “extremely high” minimum fee to the county.
“I wonder if you really understand how you will be operating here…Do you really have a good understanding of the challenges of the airport and what is expected of you,” she said.
After the presentations, Govin asked if the committee wanted to discuss the bids, but no one did and the vote was taken
Pozzuoli and Toothaker’s protest letter later described Govin’s questions and tone as “condescending and indicated disbelief of MERA’s stated positions which had already been vetted by county staff.”
Attorney Meyer suggested that airport officials selected Host because “it was a safe decision, with its size and recognition in the industry.”
Greg Meyer, public information officer for the Broward County Aviation Department, said Aviation Department officials declined comment.
Most of the county commissioners are out of town due to the summer break and none could be reached for comment.
William Hladky can be reached at email@example.com