Palm Coast Purchasing Director Brian Rothwell held a bid opening this afternoon for the city’s next garbage contract, valued around $35 million over the next five years. It was not quite a bid opening. The names of the four companies submitting a bid were announced, along with those submitting no-bid letters, but the actual bids were not disclosed. Rothwell told those submitting bids that the material would be analyzed and a recommendation made to the city council within 30 days.
The method surprised garbage haulers and others—present and not present—given the controversy the garbage contract process received since fall when City Manager Jim Landon recommended to the council that the city renew its contract with Waste Pro, its present hauler, for an additional five years, and skip a bidding process. A public outcry ensued, and both manager and council reversed, opting for a request for proposal, though the RFP was written in such a way as to clearly favor Waste Pro.
Those bids were due at 2 p.m. today at the city’s offices. The submissions were stamped in, but their bottom lines not revealed.
“I don’t think that was a real smart thing to do considering the tremendous amount of public uproar in the way this thing has been handled until now,” Bill McGuire, one of two council members elected in November, said. The garbage issue and the attempt to renew Waste Pro’s contract without bids had been a recurring concern of voters during the campaign, McGuire said, in large part because of the apparent lack of transparency. “I’d have thought they’d have known to put everything on the table.”
McGuire was equally surprised to learn of the bid opening from a reporter. He’d spoken with Landon this morning. The subject did not come up. “I didn’t know it was happening today or I’d have made a point of being there,” he said.
Jason DeLorenzo, the other newly minted council members, also didn’t know about the bid opening, but said the documents would be public records anyway. He said he was interested in knowing how bids are opened customarily at the city. “It would have been nice for them to open them immediately so everybody would have had the opportunity to see them immediately,” DeLorenzo said.
The city did not act improperly or illegally: Florida law allows municipalities to open bids’ bottom lines privately. “They didn’t do anything wrong,” said Perry Mitrano, a 30-year professional of the garbage hauling industry who happens to be Bunnell’s solid waste director. He was at the bid opening as an interested resident and a follower of the industry, and because he knows most of the players involved. “But in reality as a resident and an industry professional, how does that look?” Mitrano said of Palm Coast’s decision.
Rothwell declined to speak about the bid opening to a reporter, forwarding an email inquiry to Virginia Smith, the city clerk, who wrote on Friday morning: “The City Attorney advised several months ago, when the law changed, effective in June 2011, any RFP/bid documents relating to any submittals are exempt from Public Records temporarily, until the notice of intended decision or 30 days after opening, whichever is earlier.” Smith cited the relevant law exempting the records (available here).
The exemption does not bar cities from opening the bids the day they’re submitted, but merely allows cities, if they so choose, to keep the bids from public view.
Four companies submitted proposals: Waste Pro, Advanced Disposal of Jacksonville, Waste Management (the nation’s largest waste hauler) and Texas-based WCA Waste Corp. Three companies submitted no-bid statements, a polite way of declining to bid that also at times offers the companies a chance to explain why they didn’t bid. The method leaves the door open for long-shot cases when the bid process might be altered. The three companies were Republic—the nation’s second-largest hauler, which had been among the three companies responding to the city’s original request for information last summer—Broward-based Choice Environmental Services, and Veolia Environmental Services, a global company headquartered in France that just last week announced plans to sell its American operation.
McGuire noted the withdrawal of three qualified companies and said it would bother him if the withdrawals were the result of not wanting to contend with a process so narrowly tailored to fit the incumbent company as to make it a waste of time to bid. The city administration made no secret of its desire to stick with Waste Pro, citing a good working relationship and a working hauling system that would be upset, and would have to sustain a period of re-adjustments, should the contractor change. Landon told the council that even if the city stayed with Waste Pro, there would likely be savings in the next contract.