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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Procurement controversies -- Port of Longview, Oregon, USA

Port of Longview security camera contract raises red flags
Port of Longview commissioners ignored the advice of their staff and a consultant when it hired a local company for a $120,000 security contract, raising questions about whether it gave preferential treatment because the company employs the adult son of port commissioner Darold Dietz.

With Dietz abstaining from the vote, the other two commissioners on Feb. 25 awarded the federally funded contract to Longview-based Cascade Networks to install wireless security cameras.

In doing so, commissioners Dan Buell and Bob Bagaason put aside the advice of port staff and a consultant hired to review contract proposals, according to a Daily News investigation. The staff and consultant had ranked EZ Wireless of Portland as the top bidder because the company had more experience and submitted a more detailed proposal than Cascade Networks.

"As much as I'd like to go local, I get the feeling, as before, that EZ has the better product for the port," Buell said.

Bagaason disagreed. He said he preferred Cascade's camera brand, Sony, over EZ, which chose a company called Axis. Also, Cascade's cameras showed clearer pictures than EZ's did when both companies gave presentations to commissioners, he said.

"We have to zero in on something, and I'm zeroing in on video," said Bagaason, who also sat through several meetings with the consultants and staff members about the project.

Bagaason, who swayed Buell to support Cascade, said in an interview Saturday that favoritism was not an issue. Cascade simply demonstrated superior cameras during its presentations to commissioners, he said.

Rasplicka said both Sony and Axis are national, respected brands, and the difference between their cameras is small.

Quimby, the federal grant expert, said commissioners were within their rights to select either EZ or Cascade.

Buell agrees that Cascade is capable of doing the job, which is why he changed his vote in favor of Cascade. However, he has reservations about going against the recommendations of staff and consultants because they're the experts. He said he felt he had no choice but to switch his February vote because he didn't think Bagaason would back down in his support of Cascade.

Dietz had recused himself during a port meeting because of his conflict of interest at the advice of port attorney Randolph, who had learned of Dietz's potential conflict early this year. Under federal guidelines, public officials must avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest for awarding grants, Randolph said. The state standard is more lax, requiring public officials to recuse themselves from votes where they could see a financial gain, Randolph said.

Dietz was right to recuse himself from the vote, but he probably should have disclosed his potential conflict sooner, Tim Ford, the state attorney general's open government ombudsman, said in an interview with The Daily News.

"At the time (Cascade) made the bid, then there's the potential for the conflict," Ford said.

"This isn't right. This isn't a Latin American country," said Fred Ziari, EZ company president, last week when contacted by The Daily News.

For the Port of Longview, the security cameras are a much-needed enhancement to its 24-hour security force. In 2007, the port received $90,000 for the cameras from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which had established a port security program in the wake of the 9/11 terrorists attacks in 2001.

In 2008, the port began advertising for a wireless provider, and a four-member staff committee interviewed four finalists, which included EZ and Cascade Networks. The committee recommended hiring EZ Wireless in July 2009.

On Sept. 10, however, Port Executive Director Ken O'Hollaren asked commissioners to restart the application process. The port had been operating under familiar state contracting guidelines, but staff was unfamiliar with the more complex and stricter requirements of spending federal money, according to a letter to the port from Janet Quimby, a Vashon consultant and grant compliance expert.

The port had failed to adequately publicize the project, which limited the job to its own roster of contractors, Quimby wrote in the letter to port attorney Frank Randolph. One local vendor — whom Quimby did not identify - was allowed to submit an incomplete proposal and become a finalist, she said.

The port faces a May 31 deadline to spend the federal grant money.

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