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2013-02-20 / Front Page

Did commissioners violate bid process?

Board splits 3-2 on legal notices
BY ERIC LEVINE
editor


Justin Faber Justin Faber The newspaper that was awarded the newspaper of record contract for publishing the county’s public notices submitted a second bid after the bids were opened.

The additional bid by the Tribune- Recorder of Sandusky has raised concerns on the part of the chairman of the Sanilac County Board of Commissioners, Donny Hunt. Hunt said he was unaware of the bid until it was presented to the board the day they voted on the contract.

“I’m very troubled by that part of it,” said Hunt. “I want to know how that happened...I was dumbfounded...I didn’t know a second bid was going on.”

The commissioner who sought the second bid from the Tribune- Recorder, says he took the action because, based on its initial bid, the Tribune’s price for a full-page delinquent tax notice would have cost several thousand dollars more than the price submitted by the other bidder, the Sanilac County News also of Sandusky.

The bid process for the contract was also clouded by: Justin Faber’s announcement at the Feb. 12 commission meeting, after board members had received the Tribune’s second bid, that the delinquent tax notice was not part of the paper of record contract; and the fact that commissioners, in an apparent oversight by the county administrator, did not receive the News’ complete bid until just before the vote on Feb. 12.

The tangled web of information prompted Commissioner John Hoffmann to suggest the contract be referred back to the finance committee for review.

Instead, the board voted 3-2 to award the two-year contract to the Tribune. Commissioners Faber, Dan Dean and board Chairman Donny Hunt voted yes; Hoffmann and Jim Ruby dissented.

The motion came to the board through the finance committee where, on Feb. 4, Faber stated that the Tribune was the low bidder, based on their per inch price of $7.50, versus the News’ $8 per inch price for a half-page or larger and $9.87 for less than a half-page.

However, News Publisher Jane Vanderpoel pointed out at the meeting that for the county’s mostly frequently published legal notices - 1/6 page, 1/8 page and 1/4 page, the News’ prices were lower than the Tribune’s.

According to the two papers’ bid sheets, the prices for the bids were: 1/6 page, News, $74.03 versus $79 for the Tribune; 1/8 page, News, $148.05 versus $159, Tribune; and 1/4 page, News, $296.10 versus $299 Tribune.

The Tribune’s bids for half and fullpage notices were lower: $399 half-page versus $480 for the News; and $599 fullpage versus $960 for the News.

Vanderpoel also pointed out that the cost of publishing the four-page delinquent tax notice in News would be several thousand dollars less than what it would cost to run in the Tribune, which had not offered special pricing.

The committee, on a 3-1 vote, sent the motion to award the bid to the Tribune to the full board, with Commissioner Ruby voting no and Hoffmann absent.

The publisher of the Tribune, Bill Dixon was not at the finance meeting but later told commissioners that the only figure that mattered in his bid was the $7.50, and to disregard the other prices.

The day after the finane committee vote Faber met with Murray Calahan, the sales representative for the News who has handled the county’s legal notices account.

“He showed me the (bid) packet you (the News) submitted,” Faber said. “The board did not get the packet, just the bid sheet request...I was upset.”

He said, “obviously it got missed in the pile. It didn’t get to (the commissioners) until the next meeting (on Feb. 12).”

Faber said Calahan pointed out that in the packet the News, in answer to the county bid form’s request for “Discounts or Incentives”, had listed its special volume pricing for the treasurer’s annual tax notice. Details of the special pricing were on an attachment to the bid form, which commissioners had not received. The pricing was $344.61 per page for the four-page tax notice to run for three weeks (a total of 12 pages) for a total cost of $1,378.45.

Calahan also pointed out, said Faber, that the cost of running the same four page notice in the Tribune for three weeks, based on their full page price of $599, would be $7,188.

Faber said that’s when he decided to seek the second bid from the Tribune.

“It wasn’t fair to assume that it was going to be $7,000,” said Faber, referring to what the Tribune would charge for the notice, based on their full-page bid rate of $599.

So Faber said he asked the county treasurer, Trudy Nicol, to request additional bid information from the Tribune, so the bids from the two papers could be “apples to apples.”

The Tribune’s bid for the tax notice, at a price of $1,000, was emailed to the treasurer on Feb. 8.

Asked if he thought it was correct to ask for the second bid after the bids were opened, and the News’ prices were public knowledge, Faber answered, “did the Sandusky Tribune have your bid packet? How would the Sandusky Tribune know that (information) when we didn’t have it.”

Faber added that after the treasurer requested the Tribune’s bid, he learned from county Administrator Kathy Dorman that the newspaper of record contract did not cover the delinquent tax notice, which the treasurer can bid separately.

At the Feb. 12 board meeting, Vanderpoel informed commissioners that they had not received the News’ complete bid and handed out the sheet that contained pricing for the delinquent tax notice.

But Faber told Vanderpoel that the tax notice pricing wasn’t relevant, even though copies of the Tribune’s second bid were also distributed at the meeting.

“We did not bid the tax notice,” Faber told Vanderpoel.

“The notice has always been part of the contract,” replied Vanderpoel.

During the ensuing debate between commissioners on the pros and cons of the bids, Dean said the bids for the tax notice should be disregarded, because, “the Tribune had seen that part of the Sanilac County News bid prior to submitting his own,” referring to the Tribune publisher.

Part of the lengthy discussion also dealt with per-inch pricing. Ruby questioned Dixon’s figures, asking why his prices for 1/16, 1/8 and 1/4 page ads were higher than the $7.50 per column inch rate.

Dixon explained that the board should disregard all prices on the bid form except the $7.50, because it “superceded” the other rates.

Ruby, the finance committee chairman, was also caught by surprise when commissioners received the second bid, since the usual procedure is for bids to be reviewed by the finance committee before being sent to the board.

Was there a violation of the board’s purchasing policy?

“That’s a tough question to answer,” said Ruby. “I can’t say positively anything was done wrong.”

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