The Bunnell city administration at this evening’s commission meeting is seeking City Commission approval for two gifts totaling a $1,750 to underwrite the city’s Christmas festival, by two engineering firms on contract with the city: Kimley-Horn and CPH Engineers.
Kimley-Horn works with the city on its master utility plan and other sewer-related engineering. CPH works on the city’s water utility. The city commission approved both contracts, and both contracts are likely to be up for renewal, or to go through the city’s bidding process, in the future.
The gift and the donors are both dissimulated on the city commission’s agenda. The agenda itself doesn’t mention the gifts nor the amount. It lists a one-line item as a budget amendment: “Resolution 2019-21 Amending the FY 2019/2020 Budget.” The background information, on page 159 of the back-up material, states: “The City has received a $1,750 donation to help pay for snow at the Christmas in Bunnellevent.” It does not state that the gifts were from Kimley-Horn and CPH.
City Manager Alvin Jackson said he was not sure why the details were not included. “We’ve always gotten donations but we’re trying to actually do it the right way,” he said, citing the budget-amendment process. But he said that sort of gift is common throughout Florida, and permissible, as long as it does not benefit employees individually. “We have a gift policy that staff cannot receive gifts from any vendor or anyone doing business with the city, basically it’s right in line with Florida statute,” Jackson said. “But cities and counties solicit donations and sponsorships for events, that is not prohibited.”
He said there is no distinction when it comes to soliciting from companies already doing business with the city, or possibly having to submit bids again in hopes of retaining business with the city. “Basically they’re donating toward a citiwide function where everybody is going to benefit. That’s not inappropriate, you’ll see every city and county does,” Jackson said.
City Attorney Wade Vose said likewise. “This is entirely permissible. It would nt appropriate if there were a quid pro quo, to use a national buzz word nowadays,” Vose said, “but there’s been no suggestion that that’s the case here.”
Corporate sponsorships of local events organized in part by local governments happen, but direct gifts by companies on contract with local governments are rare. No such “budget transfers” have appeared on county government’s agendas in recent years, nor on those of Palm Coast or the school board. Waste Pro, the garbage hauler, last April provided free Cracker Barrel lunches to 400 Palm Coast city employees. It was an unusual three-day event the company termed a thank you to company workers, though it also drew questions with the city’s own policy of forbidding employees to accept gifts–a policy that, when violated by a few employees at the city’s building department just months earlier, led to suspensions and resignations.
A Bunnell policy addresses gifts and conflicts of interests: “Awarded contractors and city employees shall agree they will not engage in any action that would create a conflict of interest in the performance of their obligation with the city or would violate or cause others to violate the provisions [state law], Ch. 112, Pt. 3, relating to ethics in government.”
The policy addresses kickbacks, then gifts: “When dealing with vendors who can supply the city with goods or services, the acceptance of gifts at any time is prohibited. Employees must not become obligated to any suppliers or vendors and shall not conclude any city transaction from which they may personally benefit. No employee of the city shall obligate the city whereby said employee may derive income or benefits other than those provided as remuneration from the city for their employment.”
Vose said the policy is clearly addressing gifts between contractors and employees individually, not between contractors and the city as a whole.
Three city commissioners asked about the gift were not aware of it before this evening’s city commission meeting. They had seen the agenda, and one of them had seen the reference to a $1,750 gift, but none of the three were aware of who was making the gifts.
Bunnell has been hosting a Christmas event every December for the past few years, and in 2013, under then-manager Larry Williams, budgeted for festivities that included bringing in artificial snow. The event was quite popular. This year the city had budgeted $7,500 for the DEc. 13 Christmas in Bunnell event. The city commission pared down the budget to $6,000, and asked the administration to reduce that cost to the city as much as possible through private donations. That’s where the engineering firms’ donations came in. It’s not clear to what extent the city solicited them.