Tuesday, February 2, 2010

VISIONING STINK: Memo spikes council candidate contract controversy

SHOVEL READY:  Industrial sites at issue in Visioning dispute
READ RESPONDS:  4th Ward council candidate on Visioning contract kerfuffle
VISIONING STINK:  Memo spikes council candidate contract controversy
COLUMBIA, 2/2/10  (Beat Byte) --  A City Hall memorandum forwarded to the Columbia Heart Beat has ratcheted up controversy over 4th Ward Columbia City Council candidate Sarah Read's 2008 contracts to write a so-called "Visioning Report" for city government.  
The memo reveals that Columbia city manager Bill Watkins allowed Read (above left, Columbia Missourian photo) and her firm, The Communications Center, Inc., to bypass conventional bidding and proposal requirements. 
Earlier criticizing Read's report in a January 5 letter to the City Council, Columbia Vision Commission (CVC) members protested "inequitable access to City administration," calling it "inappropriate, in our view," to treat the Read report "as an expression of the citizen's groups who drafted the 13 Vision Statements." 
Read received a first no-bid $150/hour contract in April 2008, a few months after leaving the Visioning Committee, a predecessor to today's Vision Commission.   To comply with laws governing competitive bidding and requests for proposal (RFP), Read's first contract was capped at $15,000.
But The Communications Center quickly met the contract cap, prompting Watkins to pursue additional contracts. Using so-called "non-fungible" contracting authority, he authorized a second $10,000 contract in August 2008 and a third $25,000 contract in October 2008
The three contracts totaled $50,000 without competitive bidding or formal proposals. 
"The city manager may enter into contracts for professional and other services without following a competitive bidding process or a request for proposals process when factors such as prior experience, skills, education, local knowledge or unique knowledge are considerations in selecting the contractor," reads Columbia Code of Ordinances section 2-460(d). 
Citing this authority, Watkins sent a June 19, 2008 memo to city communications director Toni Messina, whose department oversaw Read's contract.
"Sarah Read, president of The Communications Center, Inc., has provided communications and process consulting services for other clients in the past and continues this practice....As a former member of the community visioning committee...she has unique local relationships and specific, immediate knowledge of the intent of the vision plan not possessed by other firms." 
But CVC members claim they never knew about the arrangement.   Responding to an emailed request for comment about the Watkins-Messina-Read memo -- attached to the email -- CVC chairperson Dan Goldstein, Ph.D. told the Heart Beat, "your e-mail was the first time I saw this memo."
"I was not aware of the process and procedure either," CVC secretary Jan Weaver, Ph.D. told the Heart Beat.  "I do not know why we were not made aware," added Weaver, who directs the MU Environmental Studies program.
Also unaware of the arrangement, 3rd Ward Councilman Karl Skala, who said the City Council "gives the city manager broad latititude to decide such things.  Given Visioning's stated goals and purposes -- transparency, public involvement -- would it have been nice to have known?   Yes.  Nice, but under the law, not necessary." 
The newly-revealed memo fulfills an earlier CVC request that until now, has lingered without response.   

"We are working hard on gathering information for our Columbia Vision Commission (CVC) report," the group wrote assistant city manager and city staff liaison Paula Hertwig-Hopkins on December 19, 2009.  "One item we need to document is the Request for Proposal (RFP) process used in hiring the Visioning Consultant, Sarah Read.  Could you please provide the CVC with any and all documentation on this process?   We will need:

1. The RFP to hire the visioning Consultant.
2. Any application material or communications, from or to, any applicants for the visioning contract.
3. Communications of all forms between City Staff and the Visioning consultant (Sarah Read) which in any way were related to the Visioning consultant's contracts with the City of Columbia.

We do request that it be provided before the end of December, if at all possible, so we can complete our report to Council." 
But the Vision Commission never received a response, and submitted its report on January 19 without the requested information, Goldstein said.  "I have asked Paula for an explanation of why the Visioning Commission did not seem to have received the Watkins memo, either," he added. 
Letter from Vision Commission to Columbia City Council
Three City of Columbia contracts with Sarah Read's firm
Watkins/Messina/Read memo regarding bid procedure waiver
Vision Commission Report of 1/19/2010
Columbia Vision Commission
SHOVEL READY:  Industrial sites at issue in Visioning flap
COLUMBIA, 2/2/10  (Beat Byte) --  A conflict over who said what about so-called "shovel ready sites"-- turnkey land parcels some city leaders claim might woo manufacturing firms to Columbia -- is partly to blame for an ongoing dispute between Columbia Vision Commission (CVC) members and City Hall staffers.
Language urging shovel ready site development in Sarah Read's Visioning Report ruffled feathers because CVC members say they never made such a recommendation. 
But during a Dec. 12, 2009 "mini retreat," Columbia city manager Bill Watkins told City Council members, "the Vision Commission, independently, came up with this idea that we needed three 'shovel ready' sites." 
CVC chairperson Dan Goldstein videotaped Watkins' comment and posted it on Youtube.
"I have been on the CVC since its inception.  I was also a member of the original Visioning Committee, starting after the first citizens topic group meeting," Goldstein emailed fellow Commission members.  "In neither group did we discuss shovel ready sites.  I have been poring over the original Imagine Columbia's Future, City of Columbia Vision and Action Plan, and I can find no mention of shovel ready sites." 
Goldstein even turned his documents over to computer search tools.  "I have searched the term 'shovel' in the original report pdf, to no avail," he explained. 
Concerned that "a major policy initiative is being undertaken by Council partially based on the statement from the City Manager that 'the vision commission independently came up with this idea,'" the CVC again contacted assistant city manager Paula Hertwig-Hopkins, who said the shovel ready site reference came from a so-called "Vision Implementation Report."
But the CVC had earlier disavowed the Implementation Report, passing a motion at its February 12, 2009 meeting.  From the minutes:  "Motion 2 -- Dianne Drainer:  The CVC wishes to make clear that the proposed draft of the Vision Implementation Report, prepared by a consultant engaged by the city, is not a product of the CVC.  Seconded: Jan Weaver.  In favor: all. Opposed: 0. Motion passed." 
"We decided at the February 12, 2009 meeting to frame our work in terms of the original 13 topics, instead of...the implementation report," CVC secretary Jan Weaver told the Heart Beat. 
"This motion was also shared with Council," Goldstein reminded.  "The Columbia Vision Commission has never endorsed the idea of shovel ready sites, and to the best of my knowledge, neither did the original citizens visioning report." 
Bill Watkins' Mini Retreat Comments (about 0:30)
READ RESPONDS:  4th Ward council candidate on Visioning contract kerfuffle
COLUMBIA, 2/2/10  (Beat Byte) --  Fourth Ward Columbia City Council candidate Sarah Read, J.D. spoke with the Columbia Heart Beat about the ongoing controversy over her firm's contract with City Hall to write the Columbia Visioning Report. 
Even at $150/hour, the contract was not profitable, Read said.  "We delivered far more hours than were paid for under the contract.  We produced an extensive report.  Without being involved and dedicated community members, we would not have taken this project."
The Columbia Vision Commission's (CVC) concerns over lack of transparency and favoritism are also inconsistent, Read explained, with a process that was "very public."
And though her firm, The Communications Center, Inc., has received other contracts with local government agencies, Read said she "did not seek out a contract with the City.  I was asked to help keep the process moving when Assistant City Manager [Paula Hertwig-Hopkins], who was shepherding the process, needed to take a personal leave of absence to be with her husband, who was terminally ill."   
Cited in city manager Bill Watkins' decision to award the no-bid contract, Read's experience with group facilitation and community involvement is well-known.  In 2008, she conducted a two-hour, $1,200 team-building exercise with the Columbia Public School district while also serving as president of Columbia Parents for Public Schools.  
And last year, had City Council members not defeated it, her firm was on tap to receive $9,500 to lead a two-day Get About Columbia mediation session between drivers and cyclists, to calm tempers heated over the bicycle harassment ordinance.  
"All of the above work was done or offered at a considerable discount," Read explained.  "Much of the actual work on the vision implementation plan was, in fact, pro bono." 
Finally, objections that Visioning groups and their citizen overseers were shut out of the process Read oversaw, voiced in the Vision Commission's January 5 letter to the Columbia City Council, were "incorrect," Read explained, directing readers to Hertwig-Hopkins response to the Council:    
"I assumed our work would be interpreted in light of my known dedication to the vision, and the need to keep the process moving," Read said, sentiments echoed by CVC member Dee Dokken, who earlier worked with Read. 
"Sarah served as the volunteer facilitator of the challenging Development topic group with skill, fairness, good humor and lots of her time," Dokken said.  "She was vital to the performance of the group."  

1 comment:

  1. The problems caused by too much emphasis on pushing a project "forward" without the involvement of the community. Gathering input and support from the community to Imagine Columbia's Future was supposed to be the impetus for this visioning process. It appears that the Commission has its work cut out for it. Hopefully being forced to keep up with administrative agendas will not detract from engaging the broader community, an intention still lingering after four years.