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Broward commissioners move to retake contract power; change would reverse 2010 reforms

By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org 

From left, Broward Commissioners Chip LaMarca, Stacy Ritter, Martin David Kiar, Vice Mayor Barbara Sharief, Lois Wexler,  Dale V.C. Holness, Mayor Kristin Jacobs, Sue Gunzburger and Tim Ryan

From left, Broward Commissioners Chip LaMarca, Stacy Ritter, Martin David Kiar, Vice Mayor Barbara Sharief, Lois Wexler, Dale V.C. Holness, Mayor Kristin Jacobs, Sue Gunzburger and Tim Ryan

The Broward County Commission has taken its first step to snatch back power to influence the awarding of contracts.

Commissioners last week unanimously agreed to hold a Sept. 24 public hearing to consider changing bid rules at the county’s Aviation Department to require that staff rankings of bids for airport concession contracts be approved by a vote of the commission. After the hearing, commissioners are expected to vote to make the change.

More change is in the air. Commission discussion also centered on becoming more involved in all contract selection committees.

Involvement in contract selection committees would reverse changes to the county’s Code of Ethics, enacted in 2010, which banned commissioners from committee participation.

The 2010 ethics code was championed by reformers seeking to prevent lobbyists from using campaign contributions to influence the votes of commissioners serving on selection committees.

The Aviation Department currently does not need the approval of the county commission before recommending the hiring of a concessionaire, unlike what’s required regarding recommendations for other large contracts involving the procurement of goods and services.

Aviation concession contracts cover food and beverage sales, taxi service, retail and duty free stores, advertising, pay phones, business technology service centers, airport public and employee parking facilities, self-service baggage carts, entertainment rentals and automated retail sales.

COMMISSIONERS NOW HAVE FIVE DAYS

Aviation regulations state that once the county administrator sends a memo to the commission listing how concession bids are ranked, the bid ranked first will be accepted for contract negotiations unless a commissioner expresses a concern within five working days.

The department’s concession rules have existed for decades and were not amended when changes were made several years ago to how procurement contracts were chosen.

Commissioners first learned about the airport’s concession procedures in August when a lawyer for MERABroward, a company that lost a bid for a multi-million dollar concession contract to upgrade concessions at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, complained at a public meeting.

In July, BrowardBulldog.org reported than an aviation selection committee ranked MERABroward third among three bidders although MERABroward offered 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 than the other two companies.

MERABroward, whose parent company is MERA Corporation which operates in Mexican and Ecuadorian airports, is located in Lake Worth.

On May 30, County Administrator Bertha Henry sent the commission a memo ranking Host International, a large airport concession company headquartered in Bethesda, Md., as first to upgrade airport concessions. Apparently not noticing the memo, no commissioner objected to the rankings and the Aviation Department already has entered into negotiations with Host to work out details of the contract.

“None of us caught it,” Commissioner Lois Wexler said in an interview. “We shook our heads at the last meeting” when commissioners learned they were not needed to approve the bid rankings.

Once of the Aviation Department and Host International iron out a contract, it will face an up-or-down commission vote.

The commission is expected to vote on the negotiated Host International contract later this fall.

Wexler introduced the proposal to require a commission vote to accept Aviation Department staff bid rankings. She said the Aviation Department supports the change.

‘FOLLOWING THE MONEY’

“I’m very interesting in following the money” to make sure it is properly spent, Wexler said, adding, “I don’t think it is in the best interest…not to have commissioners involved in the procurement process.”

“The procurement process right now is no better than 3½ years ago when county commissioners were on (selection committees),” Wexler said.

At last week’s meeting, Mayor Kristin Jacobs said she wanted commissioners to be able to serve on contract selection committees not as voting members but “at the table, not with your mouth taped at the back of the room…” Commissioners, the public’s elected representatives, should have the ability to question and talk to contract selection committee staff members, she said.

The county’s Cone of Silence Ordinance was modified in 2011 to prevent commissioners from communicating with county staffers who serve on such committees during competitive procurements.

Broward County Attorney Joni Armstrong Coffey told the commission the county’s ethics code would likely have to be altered to allow commissioners to talk to staff who serve on selection committees. This is “because the ethics code prohibits a commissioner from…interfering with the process,” Coffey added.

Both Wexler and Jacobs said Broward County Inspector General John W. Scott should be consulted before any changes to the ethics code are made.

Wexler said she is “not leaning toward” voting to approve the negotiated Host contract once it comes before the commission. County staff, she said, has yet to explain to her why Host was selected.

“The process is tainted,” she said. “It is more like a crap shoot. I’m not sure how I’m going to vote on it.”

Wexler is also concerned about MERABroward’s ability to deliver on its promises. Most significantly, she’s suspicious of MERABroward’s promise to pay the county $1.9 million more annually than Host International’s offer, or $19 million more over the life of the proposed ten-year contract.

By way of example, Wexler noted that when media company Clear Channel received an Aviation Department advertising concession contract in 2007 it agreed to pay the county $1.5 million annually. Since 2009, however, the county has fought Clear Channel’s continuous efforts to reduce its “minimum annual guarantee,” she said.

William Hladky can be reached at whladky@browardbulldog.org

 

 

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Latest comments

  • Since our Commissioners have raised a level of concern with this process used for the new FLL food concession why are they permitting staff to negotiate a contract with the firm offering the lowest wages, lowest private investment, and lowest financial return to the County? Why not eliminate the controversy and rebid this contract with objective selection criteria that places weight on those areas that are a priority to the county such as immediate increase in customer choices, fair compensation to workers, and payment to the county which will reduce our taxes? When an error in the process is disclosed why allow it to continue? Just a thought. Mistakes occur, don’t compound by failing to correct.

  • I think this reporter should check his facts. SunBiz website shows MeraBroward was incorporated on 11/29/2012. This company is not even a year old. To make some kind of assertion that it is a Florida company is misleading. The location for Mera Broward is that of an accountant in Fort Lauderdale. There is no Mera Corporation registered with the state of Florida operating from Lake Worth as this story and others by this reporter state. This incorporation was obviously done as an afterthought to try and assuage concerns about the fact that this company is foreign (from Mexico) and has no experience with managing operations in the United States.
    This disgruntled vendor thought they could throw money at the County lacking any experience in the States and buy the contract. However, they could not even follow the guidelines of the procurement.

  • In response to Here We Go Again, nobody is asserting that MERA is a local company. Nor is HMSHost, which is the US subsidiary of the Italian company Autogrill S.p.a. MERABroward is the proposed local joint venture of the county mandated Small Disadvanged Business arrangement intended to provide local small businesses the opportunity to gain experience in Airport concessions. There was no requirement expressed by county on US experience but rather International experience. The last I looked, FLL is surely an international airport with international travelers the fastest growing part of their business. Why should we users of FLL be satisfied with the cookie cutter approach offered by HMSHost when they could get the local taste of Broward offered by MERA and give our visitors a real Broward experience.

  • how are commissioners supposed to give value for the kickbacks and bribes they can receive IF THEY do not have the control of how taxpayer money is spent ?

  • A quick search on Google shows that Mera’s website is http://www.meracorporation.com, which displays some very impressive and substantial international operations. And the revenue and investment they offered was to be guaranteed by letters of credit and bonds. So, what was the concern? That they were not originally based in the US? Then why does the County spend so much time, effort and money trying to attract foreign investment. The result of this bidding process is probably going to have the opposite effect for years to come.

  • It’s very simple. MERA is a highly experienced airport food service operator with a stellar track-record of delivering quality and value. The fact that the County is leaving $19 million on the table (which was guaranteed by a bond) is simply ridiculous. I can certainly understand why so many commissioners are upset over this matter. The procurement should be put back out for bid.

  • Looks like MERA’s high dollar consultants have not only tainted this blog’s “reporting” but also the comment sections. It’s is a shame, this blog usually is not so obviously a paid mouthpiece. MERA’s food offering is sub-par, it has no US experience, it did not follow the procurement guidelines, it gave a lopsided/wrong-sided price proposal, and they have no standing on which to be protesting. I have never seen a company with such a poor proposal, so handily defeated stomp and whine so much. You came in third place for all the right reasons, adios. So nice to see Boardroom Communications working so hard at bending the truth for unproven foreign companies to take American jobs and export profits overseas.
    This whole blog series is obviously bought and paid for by MERA. Their solution to everything is to throw a bunch of money at it. I guess they think we do business in Broward like it is done in Mexico.

  • Actually Broward has always done business as they do in Mexico. And when the Commission votes to change the rules, it’ll be back to the bad old days.

    If they really don’t like what’s been happening, they need to have a heart to heart seriously with the County Manager. What I’d really like to see is them having an h to h with the Feds.

  • what does the county purchase efficiently ?

    WHY is hundreds of millions spent on the public bus transit system YET the operations are a disgrace ? WHY is the vehicular traffic continually getting worse ? WHY is the public school system a mess ? YET one high-rise after another gets approved and built – WHY ? WHY are the Ft Lauderdale Police working at beach-bars with felony battering BOUNCERs and then lying for them ? WHY IS the Broward County Sherriffs office sold to individuals like scott rothstein ?

    is there any doubt these county commissioners want so badly to get their hands on the money disbursing decisions for any GOOD SOUND SOLID auditing and accounting reason ?

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