By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org
Broward County Commission unhappiness with the Aviation Department’s concession bidding procedures has led to calls for breaking down the wall between commissioners and staff selection committees that recommend which companies get government contracts.
That dissatisfaction surfaced during last week’s commission meeting after a lawyer for MERABroward, which lost its bid for a concession contract, complained about an aviation staff recommendation to give the multi-million dollar contract to upgrade restaurants and stores at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to a competitor.
Following a number of scandals, the commission enacted in 2010 changes to the county’s code of ethics that prevents commissioners from sitting on any contract selection committee. The county’s Cone of Silence Ordinance prevents county staffers who serve on such committees from communicating with commissioners during competitive procurements.
Changes in the ethics code were championed by reformers seeking to prevent lobbyists from using campaign contributions to influence the votes of commissioners serving on selection committees.
MeraBroward attorney James Meyer claimed last week that the department’s selection process lacked due process and transparency and was “seemingly arbitrary…without any grading criteria.”
‘I THINK IT SUCKS’
The complaint triggered irritation by commissioners about the current process.
“I’m frustrated that I’m not part of the process,” said Mayor Kristin Jacobs.
“We are out of the loop,” said Commissioner Lois Wexler.
“I think it sucks,” said Commissioner Stacy Ritter.
Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness said the public expects the county commission to make such decisions. “In this case, it happened without us pretty much,” he said.
“That shows me that there needs to be some type of change to our code,” said Commissioner Martin David Kiar.
The Aviation Department’s Selection and Negotiation Committee chose in May to rank Host International, a large airport concession company headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, as its choice to upgrade concessions in terminals one and two.
BrowardBulldog.org reported last month that Host International was top-ranked even though MERABroward, which was ranked third, 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.
MERABroward, whose parent company is MERA Corporation which operates in Mexican and Ecuadorian airports, is located in Lake Worth.
Aviation concession contracts cover food and beverage sales, taxi service and retail and duty free stores. A concession selection, unlike recommendations for other types of large procurement contracts, does not need county commission approval.
HOST INTERNATIONAL GOT COMMITTEE’S NOD
Aviation regulations state that once the county administrator sends a memo to the commission listing how the concession bids are ranked, the bid ranked first will be accepted for contract negotiations unless a commissioner within five working days expresses a concern.
On May 30, County Administrator Bertha Henry sent the commission a memo ranking Host International as first. No commissioner objected to the rankings. The Aviation Department is now negotiating a contract with Host.
Once that’s done, the contract will face an up-or-down commission vote.
At last week’s meeting, Wexler said she was concerned that the Aviation Department’s bid ranking did not need commission approval and that the selection committee can be “completely subjective” in its decision-making.
Mayor Jacobs said in an interview that she was unaware of the five-day rule and does not remember seeing Henry’s memo. “I find it very problematic” that the Aviation Department’s ranking of bids does not need a commission vote,” she said.
Ritter said during the meeting that she wants commissioners back on selection committees as voting members, but the mayor doesn’t see that happening. During the interview Jacobs said a majority of commissioners will not vote to return commissioners to purchasing committees because the “public doesn’t like it.”
Still, Jacobs said, changes must be made to give elected commissioners more say in the awarding of concession and procurement contracts.
Jacobs told BrowardBulldog.org she wants to work with Broward Inspector General John Scott to determine what legally and ethically can be done to allow commissioners and selection committees to exchange information during the selection process. The mayor suggested commissioners might be allowed to ask questions during selection committee meetings although they would not be committee voting members.
At the meeting, Holness proposed a hybrid system, where the top few bidders who survive the selection committee present their proposals to the commission before rankings are determined.
RITTER ‘SURPRISED’ BY RANKING
Ritter said she attended the Aviation Department’s May meeting where the companies pitched their proposals and the selection committee ranked the bids. By law, however, the commissioner could not ask questions or talk to company representatives or committee members.
“I was kind of surprised (by) the ranking,” Ritter told the commission. “It continues to boggle my mind when people say we shouldn’t sit on selection committees when we are letting people who…are not accountable to the public…and do not subject themselves to election” to make contract decisions.
Ritter said the selection committee appeared unconcerned that Host International would take “months if not years” to begin the “build out” to improve the terminals stores and restaurants while MERABroward proposed to start the build out in 18 weeks.
When Ritter asked Broward Aviation Department Director Kent George if he had talked to the selection committee about the build out discrepancy, he said no, adding that he did not want to second-guess the committee.
MERABroward lawyer Meyer said that after he gave his presentation he continued to stand in case the commission wanted to question him. While standing, George turned to him and said, “You sit down.” Meyer thought George wanted to keep him from saying anything more to the commission.
None of the commissioners expressed support for overturning the Host International selection for MERABroward.
When the negotiated Host contract is brought before the commission for approval this fall, the mayor said she will study the contract to make sure that certain guarantees are included, such as airport workers being paid a living wage.
Reporter William Hladky can be reached at [email protected]