As two citizens groups prepare their appeal of a lawsuit against Sarasota County, some of their members are training their focus on an internal audit and actions by the deputy county administrator.
Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government and Citizens for Sunshine sued the county over its baseball negotiations with the Baltimore Orioles. They claimed county officials conducted those talks outside of the public eye, which would violate the state’s Sunshine Laws.
A judge, however, ruled in favor of the county last month. He found that three county commissioners, Joe Barbetta, Nora Patterson and Shannon Staub, unintentionally did violate those laws, but he said the offense was minor and did not order any sanctions.
“The ultimate goal is to determine what happened,” said Pat Rounds, a member of Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government. “It’s up to the county and auditors to reassure the people. It’s their responsibility.”
Rounds’ group believes Judge Bob Bennett erred in his decision, and they’re searching for evidence of that.
County Administrator Jim Ley ordered an audit of the procurement process after a Sarasota Observer story revealed in April that Larry Arnold, the county’s director of community services, had personal contact with two companies bidding on two separate projects related to spring-training baseball. Arnold did not reveal those contacts at the time.
The Clerk of Court’s Office conducted the audit, and its final report found that although some irregularities occurred, it concluded that no “instances of … non-compliance with the Sarasota County procurement code or procurement manual” took place.
In August 2008, Arnold was on a selection committee to choose a facilitator to help negotiate with the Boston Red Sox.
Arnold told committee members he had received some wording for the county’s bid request from a source of his. He did not reveal, though, that his source was one of the companies in on the bid, Barrett Sports Group. The language in that company’s bid was identical to the language that Arnold said came from his source.
Barrett was still awarded the contract.
Then, in July 2009, when the county was searching for an owner’s representative to look after the county’s interests during negotiations with the Baltimore Orioles, one of the bidders was International Facilities Group.
Arnold told selection committee members that a friend named Jerry recommended IFG.
He did not say that Jerry was Jerry Reinsdorf, father of IFG executive Michael Reinsdorf. Jerry Reinsdorf treated Arnold to dinner before IFG submitted its contract bid.
Auditors discovered 20 phone calls that Arnold made to principals, relatives and associates of IFG before the company was awarded its $500,000 contract.
Rounds believes the audit did not go far enough.
“It would have been helpful if the scope of the audit had been broader, ” she said.
She questions several points that were either investigated by the auditors and cleared or not investigated at all.
During an initial review of the owner’s representative bidders Sept. 15, 2009, three of the five county employees voting to award the winner, Shannon Lafon, Shelia Roberson and Greg Rouse, expressed reservations about IFG, mainly because its proposal was not complete. It did not designate a point person to be the owner’s representative.
Arnold defended IFG and suggested the company be given a second chance to name someone, because its credentials were so strong.
Moderator Jennifer Slusarz responded that giving IFG an exception would give the appearance of favoritism. She said the firms knew the ground rules when they submitted their bids.
But Arnold pushed for IFG’s continued inclusion, and the group agreed to allow it to name an owner’s rep.
The next day, Deputy County Administrator Dave Bullock sent e-mails to the three voters who did not favor IFG and asked for one-on-one meetings with them.
Bullock said he didn’t remember if he asked for meetings with the two panelists who did not criticize IFG’s bid, Carolyn Eastwood and Arnold.
Two days later, the five-member panel took its final vote to name the winning bidder, and IFG came out on top.
Roberson, Rouse, Eastwood and Arnold gave IFG a perfect score of 90. Lafon gave the company an 80.
All parties were asked about the meetings before the vote.
Bullock told the auditors that he simply wanted to remind the voters about the county’s desires in an owner’s representative.
“(The employees) said they thought the meeting was unusual, but they didn’t feel pressure to vote a certain way,” said Clerk of Courts Karen Rushing. “To the auditors’ surprise, (the three employees) said it was no big deal. The auditors can’t say, ‘That’s a bunch of baloney.’ They can only ask the question.”
Rounds’ group still takes issue with how the county came up with the requirements for past experience it used during the bidding process, but, in the two groups’ initial lawsuit, the judge found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Two months before the final vote, David Perez, an IFG executive, sent Barrett Sports Group several requirements it suggested be included in the qualifications to bid on the project.
“If the county includes any two of these in the quals to bid, they should whittle the field down to a very strong few,” Perez wrote July 24.
The list he sent included:
• At least three recent experiences as public sector owner’s rep for a large sports development.
• At least three similarly sized minor league or spring-training ballpark projects, including one renovation project.
• At least two ballpark projects built to major league baseball specifications for an MLB tenant.
• At least two professional sports developments in Florida.
• Demonstrated experience in the operations of professional ballparks.
IFG exceeded all those requirements.
The following are the final qualifications the county used for bidding companies to achieve a perfect score:
• A member of the proposed project team has served as an owner’s representative role for a major league baseball ballpark or spring-training facility within the last five years.
• Proposed team has experience with management and operations of at least two professional-sports facilities.
• Proposed team has demonstrated experience with five sports projects, including major league ballparks and/or spring-training facilities.
• At least one team member is experienced with project management specific to construction/renovation of MLB or spring-training facilities.
In the scoring criteria, past experience could earn each bidder a maximum of 50 points. Four of the five voters listed IFG as the sole company to receive all 50.
The audit investigated the Request-for-Proposal language IFG provided from a bid in Arizona, which the company ultimately did not win. That, said Rushing, discounted the argument against the county’s process, because if IFG did not win that contract, the language could not have been tilted too much in its favor.
Rushing maintains the audit was thorough, although she makes it clear that she does not like the appearance of how some of the negotiations took place.
“That is totally ‘ick,’” she said. “There’s no other way to describe it. Nobody’s happy with what was in those e-mails, but they didn’t violate the code.”
The following language relating to the Request For Proposal process is in the county’s procurement manual.
Section 6.8.6: During the time when the (RFP) document is being drafted, the advertising period, the evaluation period and as appropriate after recommendation of award, the business unit shall have no contact with potential or actual proposers and shall direct all communications regarding the RFP to procurement.
The Clerk of Court’s internal audit found that the county and its employees did not violate that code.