Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Commissioners oppose “tickler” file on contracts

Two up for election told to get info themselves

It is an axiomatic element of all power relations that information is power, in and of itself; withholding information is power cubed. - The Legendary Jim Parks

Waco – It is a matter of some curiosity that Ken Bass, the purchasing director for McLennan County, does not have the information necessary to review contracts four to five months before they expire.

For some similar and unknown reason, the McLennan County Commissioners' Court split 2 to 2 on the question of a tickler file that would show when all contracts are up for renewal, among other items needed to review all such agreements made on behalf of the tax-paying public.

Certainly, it is not a matter of secrecy, facts about public contracts are part of the public record, requests for qualifications and requests for proposals are advertised publicly, and the announcement of bid awards are a matter of public knowledge.

“I want to find a way to come up with a system where the members of the Court will know when we have contracts coming up for renewal 4 to 5 months in advance...How's that coming along?” Commissioner Kelly Snell asked County Purchasing Director Ken Bass.

Mr. Bass replied, “A lot of the time, I don't know anything about the contracts that are coming up.”

Files that are used to keep track of that kind of information are called “tickler” files in the legal profession; they are not uncommon in the offices of General Counsel for corporations of all types. Such files contain information as to exactly when the statute will have tolled on a legal complaint, the exact date upon which an answer to a lawsuit must be filed without having to accept a summary or default judgement from the Court, or exactly when pleadings and pre-trial conferences are scheduled.

Naturally, legal departments of governments and corporations keep detailed records of the details of contracts in tickler files that will alert their staff and the management of the organizations such as board members and key executives exactly when contracts will expire, why and when time is of the essence, and the full particulars of default and penalty phases attached to the stipulations of the agreements.

Mr. Snell explained that often contracts are placed on the Court's agenda at a time when there is not adequate time to review the documents or to hunt a better bidder or service provider – at a lower cost or otherwise.

Mr. Bass appeared to be confused by the request. He indicated that the task is outside the scope of his duties, that he simply does not have all the information necessary to fulfill the request, or does not understand what information is sought.

“I think what Mr. Snell is talking about are professional contracts that might cost us a lot of money,” said Commissioner Joe Mashek.

Mr. Mashek has often called for the creation of a County Attorney's office that would be attached to the office of the District Attorney, an appointive position staffed by legal counsel who reports to the entire membership of the Commissioners' Court, and not solely to the office of the County Judge.

Mr. Snell, who has made similar statements in support of a County Attorney's office in the recent past, added, “Any contract that is coming up, we need to take a look at it.”

Both of their Precincts will hold re-election contests in the March primaries and the General election of 2012.

In the absence of County Judge Jim Lewis, his administrative assistant Lynne Lockwood explained to the Court that “It's going to take time” to gather the information and put it on a retrieval system. She asked Mr. Snell what he envisioned. He said he would like to have the information on something like Microsoft Excell or a similar spread sheet readily retrievable and loaded with reports at least 4 to 5 months in advance on the particulars of contracts up for renewal, review, or renegotiation.

Presently, the only way to obtain much of the information sought is to summon the County's attorney, a gentleman who is working on a retainer agreement. Many times, he is unavailable for a minimum of a week and they must wait until a subsequent meeting of the Commissioners' Court to obtain the information they seek, said Mr. Snell.

County Judge Pro-Tem Lester Gibson, who is also a County Road Commissioner, displayed opposition throughout the discussion. He said the information is readily available if one just hunts it up.

At one point, he said, “You just want someone else to do it for you.”

Similarly, Commissioner Ben Perry voiced the opinion that the information is readily obtainable if one just takes the time to request it.

But Mr. Snell and Mr. Mashek insisted that many times they have been told by both Mr. Bass and Judge Lewis when contracts come due that “We're running out of time.”

Texas law does not require a public entity to take the lowest bid, but it does require the decision makers on public boards, commissions, executive departments and the like use their discretion to select the best bid.

It is an information intensive task, to say the least.

(The Legendary can only apologize for the poor quality of this video made difficult to view because of buffering issues)

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