By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org
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 [email protected]