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No-bid contract for city work generates controversy

September 05, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN -- The City of Hagerstown is about three weeks away from rolling out a comprehensive marketing and economic development plan.

The plan, called Hagerstown Advance, includes a detailed Web site, testimonial ads, videos, pamphlets and a DVD.

The city is paying a group of local businesses -- High Rock Studios, RidgeRunner Publishing, Fleetwood Design and 2nd Floor Media -- $58,000 to create the plan. The city is using proceeds from a lot it sold in an industrial park to pay for the program.

The no-bid contract, championed by Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II, went against the normal purchasing policy for contracts of more than $10,000. The previous city council waived that policy and approved the contract 3-1 in December.

Not everyone favors the no-bid process.

Councilwoman Ashley C. Haywood, who took office after the contract was awarded and questioned it at a council meeting last month, said Wednesday, "I don't think it was appropriate."

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The companies seem to be the most qualified and probably would have been awarded the contract through bidding, she said.

But the no-bid contract illustrates "shortcomings of the past" and a need to update the city's ethics code.

"I think there needed to be a stronger communication between the mayor and the council," Haywood said.

Councilman Martin E. Brubaker, who voted in favor of the contract, said Thursday he also considered the companies highly qualified.

"I was impressed with their experience and ability and enthusiasm," he said.

Brubaker said he saw it as a professional services contract; proficiency can take precedence over price.

"There were some specializations we brought to the table," Tim Latsbaugh of 2nd Floor Media said of the group of businesses.

Bruchey, who has pressed for years for an in-depth economic development strategy, told Haywood at the Aug. 18 council meeting the selected companies were local and invested in the community.

During a conference-call interview on Wednesday, Bruchey said, "These firms had expertise."

He said other companies shouldn't feel shut out because they will have other chances.

"There's plenty of pie to go around in this initiative," he said.

Contract controversy

Under the city's purchasing policy, contracts of at least $5,000 are put out to bid.

City staff awards contracts in the $5,000 to $10,000 range, Finance Director Alfred Martin said. The city council awards contracts that exceed $10,000.

However, the council may waive the bid requirement, as happened with Hagerstown Advance.

In December, Brubaker, Councilman Lewis C. Metzner and then-Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer voted in favor of the contract. Then-Councilwoman Alesia D. Parson-McBean voted no. Then-Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh abstained.

The contract process also doesn't sit well with David Hall of DH WEB, a Hagerstown Web design business.

About a month ago, Hall created Advance Hagerstown, a Web site that pops up when someone does a Web search for Hagerstown Advance. He repeatedly uses "Hagerstown" and "Advance" in bold on the site, strengthening its position in a Web search.

The Advance Hagerstown site is mainly links to dozens of businesses and organizations that are DH WEB customers.

Asked about Advance Hagerstown on Wednesday, Bruchey said, "I'm at that site right now and I find it not impressive whatsoever."

Hall described his site as a statement against keeping a blank Web page for several months, as Hagerstown Advance has been.

He said he hopes the marketing and economic development plan succeeds, but he was upset city officials haven't answered his questions about the no-bid contract.

Hall also criticized the connection between Bruchey and 2nd Floor Media, which hosted the mayor's campaign Web site, www.bobbrucheyformayor.com.

Bruchey said his campaign site went up months after the Hagerstown Advance contract was awarded. He said he's beholden only to residents of the city, not campaign donors and supporters.

Scott Reuschling, a partner in 2nd Floor Media, said when Bruchey told him he was running again for mayor, it took him only a few minutes to set up a basic site through a template.

He said it wasn't connected to the contract and it wasn't a campaign contribution.

"It was a pretty harmless thing ..." he said. "It sounds kind of cheesy, but I'm just a friendly guy."

Tying it all together

The project team predicted in December that it would take 12 to 15 weeks to build Hagerstown Advance, according to council minutes, meaning a spring launch.

That was delayed. Latsbaugh said the work became more detailed.

He gave as an example one overview video that turned into a series of testimonial videos, which took more planning, time and work.

"It's about tying in all these pieces," Latsbaugh said.

Karen Giffin, the city's director of community affairs, said the city wanted the Hagerstown Advance site to be complete before it went live.

Deborah Everhart, the city's economic development director, said the extra effort will be worthwhile.

"I'm so excited about this, I want it to be perfect," she said.

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