A Bidding Process Gone Awry: How The Ca Falls Short Of National Standards

April 27, 1997|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

National experts say the Columbia Association's (CA) purchasing practices often fall short of the accepted standards of government and private business in five key ways:

Phone bids

In the fiscal year that ended in May, the CA took phone bids for 68 capital projects worth approximately $120,000, its records show. In every case, CA staff members didn't record with whom they spoke. In about 30 cases, they didn't record the dates of the bids.

The Sun examined 22 of those phone bids. Of 44 purported runners-up, 16 said they had not bid for the project, four said they were almost certain they had not bid, and 14 said they couldn't recall whether they had bid. (Seven said they had bid, and three could not be reached).

In 1995, Payne Landscaping of Elkridge won at least three such questionable contracts from the CA, its phone bids beating the same two competitors all three times.

In each case, the losing bidders for the contracts -- as listed in CA records -- say they did not bid on the projects.

For the first project -- planting trees at a CA golf course -- CA records show three phone bids before May 23, 1995: $1,000 from Payne, $1,050 from Arbor Valley Landscaping of Ellicott City and $1,125 from the River Hill Garden Center of Clarksville. Payne, the low bidder, won.

But Arbor Valley owner Kurt Wedekind and River Hill owner Steve Klein say they didn't bid on the project.

For the next two Payne contracts -- both for golf course landscaping -- CA staff members apparently reused the same set of questionable bids.

According to CA records, bids for the first of the two projects, phoned in before Sept. 28, 1995, were: Payne ($2,400); Columbia Landscape, also owned by Klein in Clarksville ($2,600); and Arbor Valley ($2,650).

Again, Wedekind and Klein say they didn't bid on the project.

CA records list phone bids from Payne, Columbia and Arbor Valley in the same amounts 12 days later. And again, Wedekind and Klein say they did not bid.

Payne received $29,753.67 for CA projects in the fiscal year that ended in May. Payne's owner, Andrew Payne, says he has done work for the CA for at least 12 years, including a $109,000 golf course project several years ago.

"I don't really think there's much preferential treatment," Payne says. "Some things I get, and some things I don't."

But Klein considers it "a foregone conclusion" that such CA landscaping work goes to Payne. "For a municipality, so to speak, it is very unique," he says.

Wedekind says of the CA: "I guess it's who you know. If you're not in the right clique, it seems like you don't get work."

But Pam Mack, a CA vice president, says of these bids: "The only thing I can say is, they [the bidders listed in CA records] should have been called. I just know that our staff put down that those people were called."

National purchasing experts say that is not acceptable.

"Number one, it's sloppy," says Harold Fearon, founder of the Center for Advanced Purchasing Studies at Arizona State University. "It could actually be dishonest."

D'Arcy Roper, manager of technical services for the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing in Reston, Va., says, "If a buyer did that for me, he wouldn't be working for me for long."

Late bids

CA staff members allow contractors to submit bids after deadlines and after other contractors have turned in bids on time.

"If somebody calls in and says, `I can't get it in today. Can you give me until Monday or Tuesday?' which does happen, we say yes," Mack says. "And we don't consider that unfair."

Padraic M. Kennedy, the longtime CA president, says it makes little sense to toss out a bid just because it arrives late. "As long as it's not hurting your date that you're trying to get something launched by, that's fine," he says.

But allowing one contractor to come in late -- even by as little as an hour -- creates the appearance that the late bidder was tipped off to the other bids, experts say.

"You destroy the bid process when you do that," Fearon says. "It smacks of favoritism."

The association has no specific policy against taking late bids. It is not possible to determine how many late bids CA accepts, because its bid files often lack solicitation letters and the bids often lack dates.

But the records include cases in which the late bidder was low bidder by a small amount.

CA staff members even awarded a contract to a late bidder by phone four days before receiving its bid by fax. That was for an irrigation project worth $12,500, which is over the limit for phone bids under CA policies.

The recipient of that contract was McDonald & Sons of Jessup, which is owned by John A. McDonald, a former CA land maintenance manager who last worked for the association in 1981.

CA records show that two bids were received for the irrigation project before the January 1996 deadline. More than two months later, on March 22, McDonald gave a bid by phone that was $300 below the previous low bid. His written bid arrived by fax March 26.

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