RTM members press for law setting town rules on competitive bids
Citing concerns about the way the town does business, five members of the Representative Town Meeting have proposed an ordinance that would set strict rules for competitive bidding on town contracts.
The town currently operates with a bidding policy — a revision of which was recently adopted by the Board of Selectmen — but according to its critics, the Finance Department can disregard it at its discretion.
The proposed ordinance is scheduled to go before the RTM Ordinance Committee at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Town Hall.
Following a revelation at a RTM session in February that a $308,000 pool repair project at Longshore Club Park had not been put out for competitive bids by then-Parks and Recreation Director Stuart McCarthy, Kristan Hamlin, RTM District 4, began advocating for the ordinance.
McCarthy, she said, “first tried to tell the RTM that he put a high-priced government contract out to bid, and then after I questioned him more closely, he finally admitted that he had not done so.”
“Instead, he finally admitted to the RTM that the Finance Department instructed him to circumvent the competitive bidding process,” she said, seeking bids on a smaller $15,000 pool cleaning contract and then lumping the larger renovation project in with it.
“He told the RTM that he and the Finance Department intended to award the bid to that company with absolutely no competitive bidding,” according to Hamlin. “I was shocked at what I was hearing him describe because it violated the common law and put the town at risk of being sued.”
“It would have been impossible under our processes for Stuart to have moved forward in the process of issuing a contract for those pool repairs without having it go for competitive bid,” he said. “Our processes and procedures would have stopped it cold … so to represent that the director of finance said that he could do a purchase of that size without going to competitive bid, it was a total misrepresentation of the process and Mr. Conrad never said anything like that.”
Marpe said he later made it clear to McCarthy that he had misspoken.
“We talked to Stuart about his statement,” Marpe said. “After he said it, we certainly sat with him and reviewed the comments and made sure that he understood that he had misspoken as it relates to the policy we would have followed.”
Marpe said he doesn’t believe a competitive bidding ordinance is necessary. “I believe the policy that was adopted by the Board of Selectmen represents the best purchasing practices,” he said, noting it follows “the state-mandated guidelines for purchases in the process, as well as dollar limits.”
“I’m not sure that an ordinance is necessary, but if the RTM feels that there is a need for an ordinance, I think it should basically have the same wording as our policy … Ours calls for the director of finance for being responsible for establishing the purchasing policy,” he said.
But Hamlin called the existing policy “wholly deficient,” and noted that the Finance Department can waive it anytime it chooses.
“In response to my proposed ordinance, the own Finance Department has basically admitted the deficiencies in its prior policy by virtue of rewriting its policy to reflect many of the same features that are in my proposed ordinance,” she said. “However, the Finance Department can always change the policy back to what it was before.”
“They cannot do that if the RTM requires that these positive changes become law,” she said.
The four other RTM members petitioning for adoption of the ordinance along with Hamlin are Clarissa Moore, District 4; Lauren Karpf, District 7; Brandi Briggs, District 6, and Sylina Levy, District 3. Along with defining ethical conduct and competitive procurement, the proposal states, “A town agency must conduct an RFP process to select a contractor when the anticipated cost or term of a future contract exceeds $20,000 or exceeds one year.”
“Here in Westport it’s the RTM that writes the town laws,” Karpf told the RTM last week, noting it is essential that it not be “the job of an unelected government employee.”
“A law is necessary for obvious reasons,” she said.
“I believe that elected officials have a fiduciary obligation to manage costs,” said Moore, who is running this fall for the Board of Finance. “Westport can avoid tax increases by controlling spending.”
“During several requests for appropriations the RTM (has been) told that the contract would not be bid because ‘these are the guys you want,’” she said, referring to selections made by various department heads.
“Competition lowers prices,” Moore said, “so a better policy would be to get bids from our favorites as well as other interested firms who meet our minimum requirements. We should decide who we want only after we understand our options.”
Jennifer Tooker, Board of Finance chairwoman, did not want to weigh in on the matter.
“I really don’t have anything to say because that issue has not come before the Board of Finance and it will not, so we are not involved in that issue,” she said.