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Procurement to Make Putin Proud

By Kevin Fisher
Wednesday, February 12, 2014 |
First, Richland County showed it can’t handle elections. Now, it has shown it can’t handle contracts either.

In an act of dubious legality, questionable judgment and political pandering of the worst sort, Richland County Council voted to award a $50 million contract to ICA Engineering for road projects to be funded with the latest penny sales tax hike, then reneged on the deal following a protest from a competing firm.

Increasingly, it seems the law simply doesn’t matter in Richland County. Your right to vote? Trampled on in the 2012 election debacle, with the inexcusable mess still unresolved. Was it incompetence or intent? And either way, who was responsible? Apparently we’ll never know, as accountability is so old-school.

In fact, almost 18 months later we still have not even been told the identity of the Richland County Election Commission employee who dramatically reduced the number of voting machines to be distributed to precincts, much less why, how or on whose order he did so.

Yet our politicians accept that. As do our news media. As do we. Accordingly, we get more of it.

Ironically (or predictably, take your pick), the hottest ballot question of the 2012 election debacle — the penny sales tax — is in turn the basis for the 2014 contract debacle. A disastrously executed voting process for raising money is now a disastrously executed contract process for spending that money.

Indeed, while our local government is now conducting the people’s business in a manner that would make Vladimir Putin proud, the citizens of Richland County, S.C., USA should be ashamed.

Again.

I’d like to say we’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, but we always take it. I don’t know why that is, but it is. It’s an unusual civic tradition.

In the case of the award/unaward of that $50 million engineering and construction contract, I would love to have seen the winner/non-winner (ICA Engineering) take Richland County straight to court. However, the company has instead chosen to swallow hard and bid again, and if that is their business judgment I respect it and wish them well.

But I can assure County Council that if they had done the same thing to me, aggressive attorneys would have already been hired, a massive lawsuit filed and a legal colonoscopy would be underway on them both individually and as a public body.

The business of awarding government contracts is something I have considerable experience in. As a result, I know the process well and demand respect for it both as a business owner and a taxpayer.

Over the past 25 years, my company has bid on numerous state contracts for advertising and marketing services. Each time, it was a competitive bid situation involving a detailed, specific response from bidders and a detailed, specific process and criteria for selecting the winner.

Sometimes we’ve won and sometimes not, but I have never seen a government procurement episode like this one. The idea that the process would proceed, reviews of the bids would be completed, scores assigned, a winner determined, that firm notified — and then Council would pull the contract back and announce they were starting over due to purely political pressure is Third World procurement. Of course, it pairs nicely with our Third World elections.

By the way, I say “purely political pressure” because that’s what it was. According to news reports, members of the Transportation Penny Advisory Committee complained about being left out of the process, as well as the fact that an out-of-state firm was named the winner (though ICA has a strong in-state presence, as it merged recently with Florence & Hutcheson, a respected engineering firm that has called Columbia home for over 30 years).

While those concerns could be raised, that absolutely cannot take place after the fact. That the Transportation Penny Advisory Committee thought Council didn’t have its act together is irrelevant once the bid process began. The reality is there was no stipulation against an out-of-state firm being the lead contractor, and no stipulation that the committee would be involved in the decision in any way.

The bottom line is Richland County Council changed the rules after the game began — no, make that after the game was over. It was an outrageous, amateurish and fundamentally unfair action, one that makes a mockery of government procurement.

As The State reported when it was announced the contract was being cancelled: “Observers were stunned.” As well they should be. So should you.

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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