Have Yourself A Conway Crony Christmas
I heard Conway was purchasing a 54-foot Christmas tree for $130,000 and I thought to myself, “What a ridiculous waste of taxpayer money!” While that is certainly true, a local citizen has discovered something even more scandalous about the purchase of this glorious, five-story tannenbaum.
Daniel Geraldson, a local realtor, has done some digging and discovered that the city of Conway actually amended the city code to insure that the tree would be purchased from the company Get Lit. To be clear: the city of Conway actually wrote this company’s name into the city code and exempted this project from competitive bidding.
Under Conway’s city code, any purchase or contract that exceeds $10,000 is supposed to be opened up for bids and advertised in the local paper (see the relevant section of the code here). Presumably, this requirement is an effort to provide transparency into the dealings of government and cut down on cronyism or “back-room deals.” It’s also an effort to keep costs down. That’s kind of the whole point behind the bidding process in any industry and it’s particularly important when governments are dealing with taxpayers’ money. (Conway’s bidding policy expressly says the lowest responsible bidder should be awarded the contract, but of course that procedure was not followed in this circumstance.)
As you can see below, the city council voted in August to carve out an exemption to the competitive bidding requirement for Get Lit:
Here’s the text of that ordinance that was passed by a vote of 8-0. As you can see, the purchase of this Christmas tree was “necessary for the protection of the public peace, healthy, and safety,” and therefore constituted an emergency:
So, why did the city amend the law and make a special exception for this company? Conway Mayor Tab Townsell says it was due to “time constraints.” But it’s difficult for me to take that explanation seriously, considering the vote was held a full three months before the beginning of the Christmas season (and even if that wasn’t enough time to put up a tree, I hardly see that as a sufficient justification for changing the law for one particular company). Perhaps one of the decision makers has a financial interest at stake here — we may never know the full back story. But what we do know pretty much stinks: 1. The city’s competitive bidding requirement was circumvented for the benefit of one particular company, 2. A quick Google search reveals multiple comparable Christmas trees for about half the price of the one sold by Get Lit, and 3. Whoever is benefiting, it sure isn’t the taxpayers.
(My compliments to Geraldson for his diligence and commitment to making local government accountable. We need more of this.)
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I hope this isn’t what it appears to be. If there is nothing to hide, a clear explanation should be provided by our mayor and city council.
Did this violate state law? There are two sections of state law that deal with city purchases – 14-58-104 and 14-58-303. 14-58-303 specifically says the following: “Except as provided under § 14-58-104, in a city of the first class where the amount of expenditure for any purpose or contract exceeds the sum of twenty thousand dollars ($20,000), the mayor or the mayor’s authorized representative shall invite competitive bidding on the purpose or contract by legal advertisement in any local newspaper.”
What does 14-58-104 say?
14-58-104. Specific purchases and contracts.
(a) The municipal governing body of a city of the first class, city of the second class, or an incorporated town may purchase the following commodities without soliciting bids:
(1) Motor fuels, oil, asphalt, asphalt oil, and natural gas; and
(2) New motor vehicles from a motor vehicle dealer licensed under the Arkansas Motor Vehicle Commission Act, § 23-112-101 et seq., if the motor vehicle is purchased for an amount not to exceed the fleet price awarded by the Office of State Procurement and in effect at the time the municipal governing body of a city of the first class, city of the second class, or an incorporated town submits the purchase order for the same make and model motor vehicle.
(b) The municipal governing body of a city of the first class, city of the second class, or an incorporated town may renew or extend the term of an existing contract without soliciting bids.
So, unless the Christmas tree is oil, fuel, natural gas, a vehicle, or an “existing contract,” the city can’t waive bidding and broke state law.
Here’s 14-58-303 in its entirety:
14-58-303. Purchases and contracts generally.
(a) In a city of the first class, city of the second class, or incorporated town, the mayor or the mayor’s duly authorized representative shall have exclusive power and responsibility to make purchases of all supplies, apparatus, equipment, materials, and other things requisite for public purposes in and for the city and to make all necessary contracts for work or labor to be done or material or other necessary things to be furnished for the benefit of the city, or in carrying out any work or undertaking of a public nature in the city.
(b) (1) (A) Except as provided under § 14-58-104, the municipal governing body of any city of the first class shall provide by ordinance the procedure for making all purchases which do not exceed the sum of twenty thousand dollars ($20,000).
(B) Except as provided under § 14-58-104, the municipal governing body of any city of the second class or incorporated town may provide by ordinance the procedure for making all purchases.
(2) (A) (i) Except as provided under § 14-58-104, in a city of the first class where the amount of expenditure for any purpose or contract exceeds the sum of twenty thousand dollars ($20,000), the mayor or the mayor’s authorized representative shall invite competitive bidding on the purpose or contract by legal advertisement in any local newspaper.
(ii) Bids received pursuant to the advertisement shall be opened and read on the date set for receiving the bids in the presence of the mayor or the mayor’s authorized representative.
(iii) The mayor or the mayor’s authorized representative shall have exclusive power to award the bid to the lowest responsible bidder, but may reject any and all bids received.
(B) The governing body by ordinance may waive the requirements of competitive bidding in exceptional situations where this procedure is deemed not feasible or practical or as provided under § 14-58-104.
(c) (1) In a city of the first class, a city of the second class, or an incorporated town, the governing body by ordinance shall have the option to make purchases by participation in a reverse Internet auction, except that purchases and contracts for construction projects and materials shall be undertaken pursuant to subsections (a) and (b) of this section and § 22-9-203.
(2) The ordinance shall include, but is not limited to, the following procedures:
(A) Bidders shall be provided instructions and individually secured passwords for access to the reverse Internet auction by either the city or the town, or the reverse Internet auction vendor;
(B) The bidding process shall be timed, and the time shall be part of the reverse Internet auction specifications;
(C) The reverse Internet auction shall be held at a specific date and time;
(D) The reverse Internet auction and bidding process shall be interactive, with each bidder able to make multiple bids during the allotted time;
(E) Each bidder shall be continually signaled his or her relative position in the bidding process;
(F) Bidders shall remain anonymous and shall not have access to other bidders or bids; and
(G) The governing body shall have access to real-time data, including all bids and bid amounts.
(3) The governing body may create by an additional ordinance reverse Internet auction specifications for the anticipated purchase of a specific item or purchase.
(4) (A) The governing body is authorized to pay a reasonable fee to the reverse Internet auction vendor.
(B) The fee may be included as part of the bids received during the reverse Internet auction and paid by the winning bidder or paid separately by the governing body.
(5) The governing body retains the right to:
(A) Refuse all bids made during the reverse Internet auction; and
(B) Begin the reverse Internet auction process anew if the governing body determines it is in the best interest of the city or town.
(d) For purposes of this section:
(1) “Reverse Internet auction” means an Internet-based process in which bidders:
(A) Are given specifications for items and services being sought for purchase by a municipality; and
(B) Bid against one another in order to lower the price of the item or service to the lowest possible level; and
(2) “Reverse Internet auction vendor” means an Internet-based entity that hosts a reverse Internet auction.
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It stinks like the sewer plant over by Walmart on Dave Ward Drive.
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