WEST PARK – The city of West Park may have violated state law by failing to properly advertise competitive bids for more than a dozen city contracts worth more than $350,000, a South Florida Times investigation has revealed.
“As I recall, the only RFPs/IFBs that were noticed in the newspaper were the Community Development Block Grant projects; as required by Broward County,” West Park City Administrator Russell Benford said, referring to official city requests for contractors’ proposals.
Instead of placing the advertisements for contract bids in print newspapers, West Park officials relied on the city’s local procurement ordinance, which in part states, “Notices inviting competitive solicitations shall be published at least one time in a newspaper of general circulation within Broward County or posted electronically on a centralized Internet website designated by the City for this purpose.”
Based on that language in the ordinance, the city listed the bid solicitations on its website, and posted them on another site called DemandStar.com, which is operated by a Seattle, Washington-based firm called Onvia.
On its Web site, DemandStar.com boasts more than 8,400 subscribers who can peruse listings of contracting opportunities posted by local, state and federal government agencies.
While this practice may be convenient and perfectly legal in some states and U.S. territories, experts say West Park could be subject to legal challenges if it has not followed Florida law.
Florida law states that all such official proposals must be placed in a newspaper of general circulation, an effort by lawmakers to ensure that all members of the public – including all potential bidders – are aware of what cities intend to do with public money.
“West Park might have a problem,’’ Sam Anthony Terilli Jr., an attorney and assistant journalism professor at the University of Miami’s School of Communication, said in an email to the newspaper. “Cities have some leeway, but cities may not violate state law. The city manager would be well advised to consult his city attorney. The list of city actions is broad and the results might vary from problem to problem, but as a general rule cities cannot override state law with a local ordinance.’’
Terilli, a former Miami Herald general counsel, continued in his email, “Florida law typically requires that public notices be published in newspapers of general circulation. I know some agencies and municipalities have argued in the past that they ought to be allowed to do this on their own websites to save money. I understand these efforts in Tallahassee have come up several times and have been defeated because there is a public interest in supporting local papers and in getting information to people in print.”
A bill that would have authorized government agencies in Florida to post mandated advertisements, notices and other announcements on the Internet died in the state Legislature earlier this year, during the most recent session.
Yet a South Florida Times review of a small number of bid contracts that West Park has awarded shows no evidence of newspaper ads or sworn affidavits attesting to the dates those ads were published. The Times’ review found that at least 15 such bid opportunities were never advertised in a newspaper.
In many other cases, however, the city has properly advertised requests for bid proposals in newspapers.
In response to public records requests for copies of the required ads, Benford acknowledged that no newspaper ads had ever been placed for those 15 city contracts. He said that instead they were posted on DemandStar.com.
“The requests for proposal or invitations for bid were advertised pursuant to the city's purchasing ordinance,” Benford explained in an email sent to the newspaper.
The projects in question are for landscaping, hurricane clean-up, grant writing, street beautification and even lobbying state legislators on statutes and other matters that come before Florida lawmakers.
Although Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money from Broward County does fund some of these projects, county officials seemed surprised when the Times informed them of the city’s practice.
“All of the projects that have been funded by our Division in West Park have been advertised in the newspaper; we have not authorized advertising only on their web site; hope this answers your question,” said Ralph Stone, director of Broward County’s Housing Finance and Community Development division.
Included in the list of projects that West Park represented as not advertised in a newspaper were several that were funded through the county's Housing Finance and Community Development Division.
Among them is a $156,900 contract for entrance signs and landscaping awarded in 2008 to a contractor, with $138,500 in county CDBG funding coming from the county housing finance division. When informed of the situation, Stone searched the county's files, and produced a newspaper ad for the West Park project that was published on Aug. 31, 2008 and Sept. 7, 2008 in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
The South Florida Times contacted Benford about the discrepancy, but did not immediately provide an explanation.
Benford insists the city's ordinance was followed, and that all of the city's processes are proper and correct.
“West Park has its own purchasing ordinance, and state law does not apply,” he said.
Pictured above is West Park City Administrator Russell Benford.