Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Columbia County's Highest Officials & County Atty Claim Annual Contract Purchasing Policy Never Written Down, Then Make Up Stories About It

The 2015 Columbia County 5
left to right: Rusty DePratter, Ronald Williams, Everett Phillips, Scarlet Frasina, Sylvester "Bucky" Nash. Only Commissioners Williams and Nash were left in 2020. In November, Mr. Nash was unseated by Robby Hollingsworth.                                       Photo: Columbia County Observer

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL –  Columbia County's latest 'Keystone Cops Extravaganza' is one for the record books, even for its highest officials, who claimed they couldn't find a purchasing policy that was voted on and passed unanimously by the entire county commission.

Background:  The Devolving of the County Minutes

For decades Columbia County, Florida, was run like a benevolent dictatorship by one man, County Manager Dale Williams. County commissioners came and went, while Dale Williams remained at the helm.

Columbia County Clerk of the Courts Jay Swisher
New Clerk of the Courts attends the first County 5 October meeting. Mr. Swisher will be the one to decide if the County minutes will have added value during his reign.

The Clerk of the Courts is responsible for the minute taking of County Commission (County 5 or The 5) meetings. For years, the minutes were expansive and informative.

After your reporter came to town in the mid 2000's and began asking questions, the minutes and the rules of public engagement were rolled back.

As 2012 rolled in, Dale Williams orchestrated a move to de minimis minutes, with help from the County 5 and then conflict counsel and now elected County Attorney Joel Foreman.

What the public had to say and what County Commissioners had to say mostly disappeared from the minutes.

It became a standing joke among many in the County that when a member of The 5 stated that they were saying something for "the record," it would never be seen in the County minutes.

The conversations regarding the disappeared County Contract Purchasing Policy are a classic example of this.

The Major Players

County Manager Ben Scott in 2015 as Assistant County Manager
Ben Scott in June 2015, two weeks after the purchasing policy was changed. At this time Mr. Scott was running the County while Dale Williams remained on the payroll.

Former County Manager Ben Scott: County Purchasing Director between 1999 and 2011, Assistant County Manager for a time before he was anointed County Manager on October 1, 2015. He earned an MBA while working for the Clerk of the Court. On September 28, 2020, Mr. Scott resigned, effective December 29, 2020.

County Attorney Joel Foreman: became County Conflict Counsel on April 21, 2011, while two of the sitting commissioners never revealed they were his clients. He was elected County Attorney in 2014.

Commissioner Ronald Williams: a County commissioner since 1982.

2015: Unanimous Support
Purchasing Policy Passed During a Budget Workshop

For years, Columbia County had 9 am budget workshops where budget issues were discussed and then brought back in front of the public during regular Board meetings for further discussion and action – read approval.

County Attorney Joel Foreman - 2015
County Attorney Joel Foreman in October 2015.

With the election of County Attorney Joel Foreman in 2014, things changed. Mr. Foreman came up with the idea that all the County 5 needed to do was call for a workshop/special meeting, and it could pass whatever it wanted at these special meetings.

Usually, the only supporting information provided at these meetings was PowerPoint presentations, which often were made available or modified at the last minute.

For years, your reporter complained about this last-minute procedure of government by PowerPoint. These complaints will never be found in any minutes.

Columbia County's Government by PowerPoint violates the spirit of the County Charter and many times violates the spirit, purpose, and intent of Florida's Sunshine law, specifically Florida Statute 286.0114 or what is known as SB50, which gives the public the right to be heard on matters coming before the board.

The law requires that the government give reasonable public notice of the proposition coming before the board to allow public comment.

On May 28, 2015, at approximately 10 am, Ben Scott, then the Assistant County Manager, recommended a change to the County's Purchasing Policy.

Reasonable Notice?

Ben Scott presented the first PowerPoint slide which recommended changing the County Purchasing Policy. (number added by the Observer)

He said, "This is a new policy change that I'm recommending today. Our current policy for purchasing calls for one-year term contracts with unlimited renewals. Staff believes this eliminates potential opportunities for interested local vendors and doesn't provide competition for doing business with the County."

Mr. Scott continued, "We get someone in there. They get a one-year contract, and they renew it for 10 - 15 years. We don't have a policy that says you have to put this out for bid at a certain time."

Mr. Scott explained that the change would allow no more than two additional years, with two further renewals, for a maximum contract time of three years for commodities and contractual services. He said then the contract would have to go out to bid.

Mr. Scott presented the second slide. No one, other that Commissioner Phillips, was confused about the intent of the change. It was written down. No one transferred it to the Purchasing Policy manual.

Mr. Scott recommended something different for professional service agreements and agreements requiring substantial capital investments.

He told The 5 those contracts "shall be for a five-year period unless canceled early by either party. All annual contracts will be rebid at the end of the maximum time."

Mr. Scott made it clear, "What I'm suggesting here is these contracts – that there is no debating or questioning."

He said that staff would know that those are the terms when we put these things out to bid.

Mr. Scott asked if there are any questions about the policy.

The recommended motion. Highlighting was by Mr. Scott.

Mr. Scott provided a recommended motion, "I'm asking for the board to approve staff recommendations for changes to the purchasing policies in reference to annual contracts."

Commissioner Nash made the motion, which was seconded by Commissioner Williams.

Commissioner Everett Phillips didn't understand the change, and Mr. Scott explained it again.

Chairman DePratter said he thought this was a good idea as it gave other vendors a chance to do business with the County.

Commissioner Nash: "You're protecting the taxpayer."

Commissioner Nash said that the big vendors were professional people, and after five-years, they would have a built-in advantage in bidding on the next contract. "You're protecting the taxpayer by ensuring that you are getting the better price."

Commissioner Williams said he remembered, "Ben said we should award bids not on who was the cheapest, but on who could provide the best service."

Commissioner Williams said he did not object to the change in the purchasing policy "because the County could choose the vendor who could provide the best service and not just the lowest price."

To make sure every one of The 5 got it right, Mr. Scott gave another explanation of the process and concluded by saying, "There is nothing in our policy that says you have to accept the low bid. It does say you have to accept a responsible bid."

Mr. Scott's suggested changes to the purchasing policy passed unanimously without a single discouraging word.

October 15, 2020
Five Years Later, Amnesia Among The 5

On October 15, 2020, out of the clear blue sky, Commissioner Ronald Williams added to the agenda a discussion on the bid process for contracts.

When the item came up, he told The 5 that he was opposed to rebidding after five years and wanted to negotiate, complaining, "We have to have a real good reason why we don't accept the low bid."

Commissioner Nash said, "5 years – add benchmarks – if they meet them, you are able to extend it. It wouldn't be five years – five years – five years."

After some discussion Chairman Witt said, "We're doing things this way currently because a previous board did make that motion."

Commissioner Bucky Nash
Commissioner Nash seemed to forget everything about the 2015 meeting.  (file photo)

Commissioner Nash, the Commissioner that made the motion to change the policy, said, "Well, I don't know if they made a motion. You signed a five-year contract, and it just became normal that when that came up, you renegotiated it."

County Attorney Foreman weighed in, leaving out any mention of the May 28, 2015 meeting which he attended.

He said, "The articulated policy that staff operated on... we had long discussions – can't we get a renewal in here. No sir, our board has a policy – five years."

Mr. Foreman said, "One of the pitfalls of rebidding is you don't know if you are going to get as good a deal as you've already got. We talked about that when the policy was first adopted."

The 2015 meeting details show that Mr. Foreman's remark, "We talked about that when the policy was first adopted," is not true.

Commissioner Toby Witt
Chairman Toby Witt wanted a new policy.  (file photo)

Chairman Witt asked, "Can you bring us back a new policy?

Mr. Foreman, many times forgets that he is the County Attorney and acts more like a sixth commissioner or just does what he wants.

He responded, "I think we'll bring you back a resolution first, saying that the old policy will no longer apply." It was not clear who the "we" are.

The County Attorney Foreman's 'Hey' Policy

Mr. Foreman continued,

"If you do want to have a policy, it just says, 'Hey, we just want to make sure we have an opportunity to negotiate in every contract.' That gives staff direction. And we can actually put that into the bid packages, so that when people are bidding for the business, they know we can draft up some proposals and come back and tell us what you want your policy to be."

A paralyzed County 5 said nothing.

November 19, 2020
A month later, Mr. Foreman's 'Hey' policy appears As a Resolution Removing All Contract Checks and Balances

Stuck in the County's Consent Agenda for last Thursday's meeting of The 5 was Mr. Foreman's 'Hey' purchasing policy resolution.

Mr. Foreman's proposed policy removed all contract time limits and bidding requirements.

Essentially, Mr. Foreman replaced the current policy with: 'if The 5 thinks it’s a good idea – then it is.'

 The 'Hey" policy: How it ended up on the agenda:

How something of such magnitude ended up on the consent agenda became clear on Friday morning, November 20, one day after the County 5 meeting.

County Attorney Joel ForemanColumbia County has always been a bellwether when it comes to providing public records. At 8:06 am, your reporter requested from Mr. Foreman the meeting date of the original meeting where the policy change was discussed.

Two hours and forty-five minutes later, Mr. Foreman provided the minutes from 2015. He also provided the email he sent to Interim County Manager Kraus on November 13, with his instructions regarding the Purchasing Policy Resolution placement on the agenda. Mr. Foreman wrote: "See attached. If you are comfortable with this, you can put a resolution number on it and post it to the agenda, or I'll be happy to do so on my own after lunch. I think the resolution is pretty self-explanatory."

Mr. Kraus posted the item to the Consent Agenda. Yesterday, he told your reporter, "I made a mistake."

On Wednesday, November 18, your reporter, a resident, called County Manager Kraus and asked that the item be moved to the regular agenda.

Chairman Witt moved the item over at the beginning of Thursday's meeting.

Mr. Foreman introduced his resolution changing the County Purchasing Policy. He explained it: "A resolution that reduced into writing for staff's benefit kinda' what the board articulated previously about moving away from the mandatory five-year rebid policy."

Mr. Foreman read his resolution and then explained, "Whether or not something would be rebid would no longer be a function of a timeline, but the will of the Board."

Chairman Witt opined about large employers and "playing with people's lives." "There's more to this than the bottom line and dollars and cents," he said.

Mr. Foreman mentioned his experience negotiating with large vendors, telling The 5 that some contractors said they could have given better prices if they knew they would be here (Columbia County) for more than five years.

Commissioner Ford said, "You have to have a cut-off somewhere in the contract."

Newly elected Commissioner Robby Hollingsworth asked, "How did we do this before?"

Before he was unelected and Mr. Hollingsworth took over, Commissioner Nash complained that backup or supporting information was not being provided to the Commissioners and the public before the meetings. He was ignored.

Commissioner Hollingsworth had nothing to rely on except the words of County Attorney Foreman and others.

Mr. Foreman said (remember he was at the May 28, 2015 meeting when the policy was changed), "Ben [Scott] or Kevin [Kirby] might have a better recollection than I do. It was a hard and fast policy adopted by the board. No contract goes longer than five years. We're going to rebid everything at least every five years. Am I right?"

It was not clear if County Attorney Foreman was doing a typical attorney brush off or didn't know.

On May 28, 2015, the policy was adopted. Joel Foreman was the elected county attorney and in attendance when the written policy was projected on the screen and passed. Ben Scott was the Assistant County Manager, who spent most of the prior decade as the purchasing director for the County. He was at this evening's meeting and could have explained.

Commissioner Williams weighed in about the prior events:

Commissioner Ronald Williams"I got suckered into this. There was a commissioner on the Board that had a beef with a contractor... He made a argument, the same argument that Commissioner Ford is makin' now... He didn't think it was right for the taxpayer if we didn't bid every five years. At the time, we was able to negotiate for the contractor if he was a good contractor and extend it for another five years. That gave a contractor time to buy equipment... and in ten years, those employees knew they had a job...  It used to not be that way. We had the ability to negotiate."  (file photo)

Commissioner Murphy asked if there was a limit to the extensions.

Ben Scott answered, "There really was no limit."

Commissioner Ford said, "I don't have a problem with negotiating for a limited amount of time. It can't be perpetual. You've got to limit that to three years or five years and then rebid it."

Mr. Foreman claimed, "It's not unusual to see a contract with up to two additional five-year terms."

Mr. Foreman singled out Century Ambulance, the County's EMS contractor, opining that Century Ambulance could be given a five-year contract with two five-year extensions. "We don't have to rebid it," he said.

Foreman said he would draft language with included renewals, which would make contracts 15-year contracts.

Commissioner Ford asked to see the state guidelines and the terms of the County's two big contracts.

Your reporter, who is also a resident, had some questions and addressed The 5, "I couldn't find the policy you're talking about. Why isn't that policy in with the backup material?... What I heard tonight, you want to give somebody the opportunity to have a generation worth of contracts."

Commissioner Williams said, "No."

Your reporter responded, "15 years. One five-year contract with two five- year renewals is 15 years commissioner. That's a generation. You need to think this through. You need the old policies. The public needs to see these policies."

Mr. Foreman added, "I just want to clarify. That's why we wrote this policy down because it appears the last policy never did get written down."

Mr. Foreman was standing in the corner without a microphone.

Your reporter said, "Say that again, please."

Mr. Foreman said, "We wrote this policy down because the last one never got written down."

Your reporter asked, "What do you mean, never got written down?"

Mr. Foreman answered, "Did I stutter?"

Your reporter answered, "No, I don't understand what you mean."

Mr. Foreman replied, "The last policy was never reduced to writing."

Your reporter said, "So there's no policy then."

Mr. Foreman said, "It's the Board's policy that they've been following. It was never reduced to writing. This is why the administrative code needs to be codified."

The purchasing policy is not in the Administrative Code. It was reduced to writing in 2015, approved by the County 5, then it was not transferred into the the manual.

Epilogue: Why wouldn't anyone admit it?

All the information about the events of 2015 was located after this past Thursday's meeting.

The County's de minimis minutes, while legal and promoted by County Attorney Foreman and past County Managers, impede good government, and both your reporter and the Deputy Clerk looked through years of minutes for an indication of when and where the purchasing policy was changed. Neither one of us could locate the minutes until after Mr. Foreman provided a copy.

The simple fact is the County's Contract Policy was written down, approved by the County 5 and then Assistant County Manager Ben Scott forgot to update the County's Purchasing Policy.

The Columbia County mystery is: Why wouldn't anyone admit it?

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