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Sometimes it’s not OK to say no

I don’t pretend to know everything it takes to be a really good council member, but I know one when I see one.
That’s probably because I’ve covered a few of their meetings, and one thing that is really, really appreciated is when an issue is debated enough so the audience can tell why a particular council member votes one way or another.
That’s not to say we have the time or the space to do an in-depth story on the whys and wherefores of each decision. But over time, the public gets a somewhat clear view. I venture to say that no doubt most of our readers know which current council member swims against the tide. Do you?
That council member never fails to state his reasons for taking a particular stand. Although he’s known for being ‘light on his feet,’ he certainly never dances around council issues. Now do you know?
Oh, well, more to the point:
A letter sent individually to each of the seven council members recently questioned why one company was not selected over another to renovate and/or remodel the courthouse and old jail, about a $4 million project.
Three companies had responded to the commissioners’ request for proposals to do the job under a performance-based contract, which gives financially strapped public entities a way to construct needed facilities with a guarantee that over time the amount of energy savings would virtually pay for the project. All that, with no up-front money, with financing not limited to the usual two percent debt limit, no bonding, no change orders, a 10-year performance guarantee and guaranteed energy savings.
To warrant all that, a study would be required of the county’s long-range needs, say, for the next 20 years and beyond.
In 1997, Siemens Building Technologies Inc., a well-established company came calling. That was back when Harrison County was, to put it mildly, financially strapped. No one saw that changing anytime in the near future, so when Siemens suggested a way to get the study free, officials jumped at the idea.
Later, Siemens turned to RQAW, the architectural firm that designed the Harrison County Justice Center, which opened in 1996. That building was based on what else? Harrison County’s long-range needs. So, RQAW already had the results of its long-range study.
To make a long story short, the commissioners sent out requests for proposals based on the scope of work, and three firms responded by submitting proposals: Performance Services, Siemens, and Exelon Services.
The commissioners studied the proposals (front and back, inside and out, they say) for a couple of weeks and then made a decision based on their findings. Ironically, Siemens, the company that told Harrison County about the legislation that allowed the project, lost out; that is, they lost out if Performance and county officials make a final deal. If not, then Siemens, the commissioners’ second choice, is next in line.
Siemens, though, is not happy, as you might have guessed. A company exec wrote a letter to council members (holders of the purse) setting forth the company’s questions and asked that the project not be funded.
Jeffrey L. Metcalf, business development leader for Siemens, said in the letter that, ‘Siemens created the scope of work proposed in this RFP (request for proposals) by RQAW. The scope was nearly identical to the scope presented twice before. However, a major concern voiced by county officials (then) was that they were not getting pricing from any company besides Siemens.
‘This competition was supposedly achieved by hiring RQAW to cover the ‘bidding’ process and compare pricing from multiple companies,’ Metcalf said.
(Several other questions and statements were made in the letter as well, but it’s too long to reprint here.)
The three members of the board of commissioners have since completely changed faces and the new commissioners aren’t bound by the concerns of the earlier board no more than they were bound to accept the architect’s recommendation, which was Siemens first, Performance second.
The subject came up for discussion April 28 at the council’s planning session. The council members were obviously asking questions based on the letters they had received from Siemens. Yet, when Auditor Pat Wolfe (who by virtue of her office serves as secretary of both the council and board of commissioners) asked for a copy of the letter for the record, Council Chair Gary Davis said the letter contained only comments. Davis said he saw nothing about the letter that should be part of the public record, and he wanted to confer with the council’s attorney before deciding whether to release it or not.
Our attorney for the Hoosier State Press Association, Stephen Key, said Davis is probably right, if the letter was written to individual council members and not to the council as a whole. But, he added, because a copy went to each council member, and if it was apparently addressed to each with ‘Harrison County Council’ after their names, then an argument could be made that it was intended for the council and thus should be made public.
While withholding the letter from the public might not be in violation of Indiana’s Open Door law, it may still violate the ‘spirit,’ or intent of the law. In those instances, it’s best to err on the side of the public.
Having read the letter, I see no reason not to make it public, simply because withholding the letter could raise questions in the public’s mind that might linger and fester. And, when the public’s business is conducted in public, good county officials can accomplish much.