Press of Atlantic City Archives SEPT 5, 2011: Since at least 2008, the city’s method for awarding contracts to certain professionals has favored longtime residents and former residents over outsiders.
Those lawyers and engineers have given local Republicans, the party in power, $17,000 in campaign contributions over the past three years.
State governmental experts say they have rarely seen a municipality follow rules that so openly favor locals. And in at least one case, the city’s use of the guidelines has cost taxpayers more.
But the city defends the use of its “familiarity” clause, even as it changes its contribution rules to bring them more in line with the rest of the state. “Familiarity,” defined as “having lived in Brigantine,” means that bidders who are Brigantine residents would get a higher “score” than out-of-towners, city documents show. In addition, having lived in the city for more than 20 years boosts a bidder’s score even more.
Municipalities are allowed to write their own criteria for professional service requests for proposal, or RFPs, which usually include language such as “experience,” “expertise,” and “cost.” But while most of Brigantine‘s 2011 RFPs include just those criteria, a few — for solicitor, engineer, and Planning Board planner — also include the criteria of “familiarity.” Those positions are filled by current or former Brigantine residents Tim Maguire, Ed Stinson, and Lance Landgraf, respectively. Most RFPs for positions currently held by professionals who have not lived in Brigantine do not include the familiarity language.
The standard for familiarity is not even applied evenly. The RFP for municipal engineer — a position held by Stinson, a Brigantine resident — describes familiarity as “I live in Brigantine and have lived in Brigantine.” The RFP for Planning Board planner — held by Landgraf, who lived in Brigantine in the ’90s but moved to Ventnor a decade ago — described familiarity as “I have lived in Brigantine.”
In addition, the RFP for labor counsel defines “familiarity” totally differently — as having “served as” Brigantine labor counsel. That description may have hurt the chances for an out-of-town law firm. Current labor counsel Archer & Greiner received the lowest possible score on the “cost” criteria for its hourly rate of $195, while the only other applicant for labor counsel, Eric Bernstein & Associates of Warren County, lists its hourly rate as a much cheaper $125 per hour.
But Bernstein is listed in the city’s official RFP summary as “Did not complete the (RFP) form,” despite providing all relevant “experience” and “cost” information, the only criteria other than familiarity. Archer & Greiner got the contract.
“You see (familiarity criteria) occasionally on housing authority RFPs, but I don’t recall seeing it on Brigantine‘s RFPs. If it was, that’s OK, but most (cities) don’t,” Eric Bernstein said of his firm’s losing bid. Showing preference in awarding a professional services contract is not illegal. If the city just wanted to hire whomever it wished, without an open bidding process, it is allowed to do so under the “non-fair and open” method in state law. The only caveat is that professionals could not then make campaign contributions. But the system Brigantine has been using allows it to describe its process as “fair and open” — which, because there is a bidding process, opened the door for contributions.
From 2008 to 2010, seven city professionals and their firms contributed more than $17,000 to the Brigantine Republican Club and individual Republican candidates, state Election Law Enforcement Commission reports show. If Brigantine used the “non-fair and open” process — or had introduced its own “pay to play” ordinance earlier — those professionals would have been greatly restricted in their contributions.
“I can’t say it’s common,” said Fran Shames, executive director of the Governmental Purchasing Association of New Jersey. “They can set their own points and values. But not everyone gives 25 points for living in town. … My question would be: Why is that important?”
“It is hard to understand an instance in which it would be important to be a local resident for a certain amount of time,” agreed Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs. Ryan said state law provides examples of criteria that can be used in awarding a competitive contract, “but this is not an exhaustive list. (And) no example, however, is given which utilizes providing extra points to any proposal of a resident.”
For his part, Mayor Phil Guenther said that while the points system was problematic, it makes sense to find professionals who are familiar with a city’s operation.
“The engineer and solicitor are both longtime residents of the city of Brigantine, taxpayers and homeowners,” he said. “Their rates are very competitive if you look at the rates throughout the state, and we’re confident in their abilities.” Maguire said that, “For anyone to say they’re trying to target someone or specifically trying to hire someone, that’s false. … I’m sure that I was selected based on a number of criteria, and I would certainly match my expertise and experience with most municipal solicitor candidates.”
“Every town has the right to bid what it wants,” said Matt Doran of Doran Engineering, which employs Stinson. “Shore towns want experience in shore knowledge. As to residency, there’s always (the feeling) that if you’re paying taxes there, you should get a little bit of credit, you know?” But the familiarity criteria has troubled Tony Pullella, the most senior Democrat on Brigantine‘s council. Pullella said he asked in December that the criteria not be included in 2011 RFPs.
“Anybody who reads the RFP can understand that the familiarity clause is intended to circumvent anyone else from being selected solicitor or engineer,” Pullella said. “That type of cronyism should not be a part of government.”
In August, council approved a pay-to-play ordinance limiting contributions from professionals under contract to $300 to candidates, $500 to committees, and total contributions from all partners in a business entity to no more than $2,500 annually. Bidders also would not be allowed to have made contributions during the previous year.
The familiarity language, however, remains — although Guenther said that while he wants to keep some kind of expertise and experience criteria, he is willing to remove from 2012 RFPs the kind of familiarity language that favors city residents.
“It shouldn’t have happened last year,” Pullella said, “and we’ll do everything in our power to make sure it’s not going to happen next year.”
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