July 2017 Commission Report

Information Technology (IT) Committee meeting
The IT Committee heard from Abhijit Verekar (AV) on the status of Blount County’s ongoing IT project updates.  AV has served as the project manger for the multiyear IT project.  However, this time he was the project manager from his own newly started company Avero Advisors, rather than Mindboard Inc (Mindboard).  If you’re thinking this seems odd, you may be right.

AV and Mindboard Inc. were embroiled in a lawsuit with AV’s previous employer RNR Consulting when the county commission approved a contract with Mindboard Inc.  Some serious allegations were made in that lawsuit.  If you aren’t familiar with the situation please click on these links and read about the matter before proceeding with the rest of this report.

New company not brought to the commission for approval
Only one of the references listed in response to the Request for Qualifications (RFQ) provided by Mindboard had a budget over $60,000 while the county’s IT budget was more than 22 times that amount.  It didn’t make good sense to hire Mindboard because of these serious allegations and too much uncertainty about Mindboard handling such a large budget.

Purchasing Agent Katie Branham-Kerr defended her choice in early 2016 by saying that the rates that Mindboard offered the county were 20% lower than other contract rates but nothing was provided to the commission to support this statement.  When I (Commissioner Tona Monroe) asked Branham-Kerr why the county was switching from Mindboard to Avero Advisors, she said the county would save about 30% from what it was paying Mindboard.  It makes one wonder why Mindboard was chosen when she could find another firm to do the work cheaper the following year.  The county’s purchasing process leaves much to be desired.

The county hasn’t actually terminated its contract with Mindboard.  Both Mindboard. and AV’s company Avero Advisors are providing IT services to Blount County government.  The contract with Avero is set up on a yearly basis, renewing annually at the start of each fiscal year.  The arrangement means that the Avero contract doesn’t have to be brought to the commission for a vote on the matter because it doesn’t extend beyond the current fiscal year.  However, a contract that annually renews automatically, unless being canceled, should be required to be approved by the county commission.  This is a reform needed at the state level.

I asked Branham-Kerr if AV was working for both companies and she said no.  She said that the county had received a signed agreement from Mindboard Inc., releasing AV from contract with Mindboard.  You can read the Change of Relationship Agreement here.

Under Terms and Conditions it says:

“1. Contract Termination.
The parties hereby agree that the Agreement has been and is hereby terminated in all respects, provided however that the provisions of Sections 5 shall survive with the exception that Employee is permitted to contract with Blount County, TN and Mindboard will not seek to enforce Section 5 with respect to Employee contracting with Blount County, TN.”

Section 5 is not stated in the agreement but it appears to refer to a non-compete clause in the terminated employment contract between Mindboard and AV.  Thus, it appears that Mindboard allowed AV to contract with Blount County but not any other customer that Mindboard may have.  If so, why?

Despite this large sum of money, people are expressing their dissatisfaction with the county’s new website and software system used for commission and committee meetings.  The new Granicus program isn’t as user friendly as the older, simpler system.

The IT Committee had no say in the selection of the new software system or website.  I have and continue to wonder why there is even an IT Committee since the Mayor’s Office along with the purchasing agent and these IT firms are making the decisions how to spend your money.

Over $3 million has been budgeted in recent years for Mayor Ed Mitchell, Mindboard Inc. and Avero Advisors to manage.  It is really a shame that there is so much dissatisfaction with the use of millions of your tax dollars.

Commission Meeting
Commissioners Mike Akard and Steve Samples were absent.  Once again, I was prohibited from asking questions at the monthly commission meeting.

Recycling convenience center – Failed leadership of Mayor Ed Mitchell
There is perhaps no greater example of the failure of Mayor Ed Mitchell’s leadership than with the way he has handled recycling in Blount County.  For those who are cheering the opening of a convenience center in the county, I encourage you to consider the history of recycling in Blount County because we now have less recycling sites with the county providing recycling than before the county decided to provide recycling.

Spectra recycling announced that in May it would be closing its recycling location on Robert C Jackson that was open to the public.  After learning about this, I called the owner Mr. Steve Dixon.  He told me that I was the only elected official to call him to find out why he had closed the recycling convenience center.  After I shared this with the Big Springs Community Club at its monthly meeting, the other commissioner from the 7th district went and met with Mr. Dixon after he had already voted to spend taxpayer money for a convenience center.

Mr. Dixon shared with me how previous mayors had met with him and were appreciative of his free recycling services that he provided to the citizens of Blount County.  He shared that this changed with the Mitchell administration and the new Purchasing Agent Katie Branham-Kerr.

In 2015, the Purchasing Department issued Request for Proposal (RFP) 2015-2372 to provide recycling services for county buildings.  Spectra had been providing free recycling to the county government, in addition to free recycling convenience centers throughout the county.  Spectra was the only one to bid that RFP.

Spectra had provided free recycling to the county government up to that point but the recycling market is dynamic and hadn’t been profitable; therefore, it had asked for a small trip fee to cover expenses.  The cost would have been a few thousand dollars annually.

Then Purchasing Agent Theresa Johnson, who was later demoted to assistant purchasing agent, told Mr. Dixon that she would have to take the matter to Mayor Ed Mitchell.  Mr. Dixon waited about a year thinking that Spectra would be awarded a contract but when he called the new Purchasing Agent Katie Branham-Kerr he was told that the county would not been awarding a contract for RFP 2015-2372.  During this year Spectra continued providing free recycling services to the county government.

When I tried to inquire why this RFP was not awarded, Commissioner Ron French declared a point of order saying that it was 2017 not 2015 and Chairman Jerome Moon declared me out of order.  This prohibited me from making the point that perhaps this matter had something to do with why Spectra was no longer offering recycling and inquiring why Spectra didn’t respond to the current RFP 2016-2456 (issued in 2017).  The 2017 RFP only had 2 responses.  Commissioners looking out for the taxpayers should want to know why Spectra, a local business, did not respond to a recycling RFP.

Mr. Dixon shared with me that he did not know that a new RFP had been issued.  This is alarming because I reviewed the 2015 RFP and found that the county reached out to potential bidders but did not appear to make the same effort with the 2017 RFP.  I asked the purchasing agent who the county reached out to on the 2017 RFP and received this response:

—–Original Message—–
From: “Katie Branham-Kerr” <kbranham@blounttn.org>
Sent: Friday, September 8, 2017 4:24pm
To: tona@breezeair.net
Cc: “Jackie Cooper” <jcooper@blounttn.org>
Subject: Fwd: Question about Recycling

Mrs. Monroe,

       Please see attached.
       Regards,
 
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Lauri Bell <lbell@blounttn.org>
Date: Thu, Sep 7, 2017 at 8:48 AM
Subject: Re: Question about Recycling
To: Katie Branham-Kerr <kbranham@blounttn.org>

On 6/7/17 the invitation to bid (ITB) for Blount County’s recycling collection center was issued on Purchasing’s website via IonWave with registered suppliers being automatically notified of the posting via the website, a Legal Notice was posted in the The Daily Times, as well as on the bulletin board outside of the Purchasing Department.  I am only aware of verbal communication with Waste Connections of Tennessee and West Rock.
Finally, attached is the email string with Avero regarding pricing.

On Thu, Sep 7, 2017 at 8:07 AM, Katie Branham-Kerr <kbranham@blounttn.org> wrote:

Please review Mrs. Monroe’s email and let me know who we reached out to individually regarding the recycling bid.
 
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: <tona@breezeair.net>
Date: Mon, Sep 4, 2017 at 10:31 AM
Subject: Question about Recycling
To: Katie Branham-Kerr <kbranham@blounttn.org>
Dear Katie,
In reviewing the recycling records, the purchasing office reached out to potential bidders, by email, in 2015 for recycling needs.  There wasn’t any record of that occurring this year.  Did your office reach out, by email or any other form of communication, to potential companies that might provide recycling services?
Also, I received 3 records from Jackie but didn’t receive the email that I asked be forwarded related to the hourly rates that you negotiated with AV.  Please forward that email to me.
Sincerely,
Tona

I have repeatedly asked the purchasing agent and Mayor’s Office why the 2015 recycling RFP was not awarded.  No explanation has been given.

At one time, Spectra was providing 12 free recycling sites throughout Blount County, not including the schools that it was providing free recycling services for.  Some of these recycling centers were open to the public 24/7/365.  The county’s convenience center will only be open 3 days a week.  Furthermore, recycling at the library will stop as well.

At one time Spectra was providing free recycling for the county at the location on McArthur Road where the new convenience center will be located.  Now the taxpayers will pay for part time recycling at this location and the 12 free recycling centers that the county once had are gone.  After speaking with Mr. Dixon at Spectra, I am firmly convinced that the county could have many more recycling centers throughout the county with more hours of operation for less money than the 3 day a week county operation that will be at McArthur Road.  This great loss to the community falls squarely on the shoulders of Mayor Ed Mitchell.  Blount County needs a mayor with private sector experience who can get things done without going to taxpayers for everything.

To make matters worse, the commission wasn’t provided with all the documentation pertaining to the contract.  The contract instrument says that the contract consists of 7 documents including: the Request for Proposal, the Instructions to Proponents, the Contractor’s Proposal, the General Specifications, the resolution of Blount County ordering or authorizing, the work and services contemplated herein, this instrument and any addenda or changes to the foregoing documents agreed to by the parties hereto.  The commission was only provided with the instrument and the authorizing resolution.  It’s possible that there were no amendments but the commission should have been told that no amendments exists if there were none.

I moved to postpone the matter until the next month so that the commission could be provided with all of the documentation.  The motion failed with only Commissioners Archie Archer, Shawn Carter, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voting to wait one month to be given all of the documentation prior to voting on the matter.  The commissioners who sponsored the resolution approving the contract have egg on their faces.  You should watch the commission meeting to see how some of them try defending why they brought a contract to the commission without having the entirety of the contract.  The purchasing agent said that the reason that some of the documents were not provided is because they weren’t yet finished.  However, that does not explain the failure to provide the RFP to the commission.

Commissioner Mike Caylor asked the mayor if he had done his due diligence on this matter.  Mitchell said he had.  Apparently Caylor was OK with not doing his due diligence as a county commissioner, to protect the taxpayers.

Most of the commissioners present took the Nancy Pelosi approach to government when they voted for something only to learn later what is in it.  Only Commissioners Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voted against approving a contract without having all of the documents available.

Jail architect contract approved without a budget amendment – discussion process seriously flawed
The commission approved a contract with Michael Brady Incorporated (MBI) for jail expansion/renovation (?) without knowing the full costs of what is being called the Criminal Justice Initiative (CJI).  Jerome Moon and the commissioners who follow his lead made hypocrites out of themselves with this issue because there was no budget amendment in the packet to pay for the contract.  Moon has insisted in the past that the commission appropriate money to pay for something prior to discuss what the money is actually being appropriated for.  Remember when I tried to move discussion of the budget ahead of setting the tax rate in 2015 and only the three women commissioners voted to discuss the budget first?

On this same agenda the commission voted to appropriate the money for the recycling contract before voting on the actual contract, which was not provided in its entirety.  Moon didn’t even want me discussing the recycling contract during the discussion time of the budget amendment that funded it.  The commission is expected to approve the money without first discussing the substance of the matter, the actual legal documents and impact those documents will have.  Doesn’t it make sense to discuss the substance of the matter before you spend the money to do it?  The discussion process is seriously flawed.

Commissioner Andy Allen pointed out that the contract was specific in the cost for this project.  It’s true that the cost of the architectural firm is in the contract.  However, the costs of the project are more than the MBI contract.  The commissioners weren’t told what the actual total costs of the CJI project would be.  Only commissioners Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voted against approving the contract.

Not satisfied due to the lack of information provided, I wrote Director of Accounts and Budgets Randy Vineyard for an explanation of the costs.  It turns out that he didn’t know either and wrote that due diligence for the CJI was not finished when the contract was presented to the commission.

“—–Original Message—–
From: “Randy Vineyard” <rvineyard@blounttn.org>
Sent: Monday, July 24, 2017 11:05am
To: tona@breezeair.net
Cc: “Marvin Mitchell” <emitchell@blounttn.org>, “James Berrong” <jberrong@bcso.com>, “Jarrod Millsaps” <jmillsaps@bcso.com>
Subject: Re: Funding for MBI contract

Commissioner,
The amendment has not been finalized because there are items likely to be recommended along with the MBI fees. Our due diligence is not yet completed.
That should be concluded in time for the August Budget Committee meeting.

Randy
Randy Vineyard, IOM
Blount County Finance Director

Support for the federal government’s war on poverty
The commission approved a resolution supporting federal government programs that were created as a part of the war on poverty.  Nearly everything that the federal government declares war on turns into an expensive failure.  The war on poverty may be the costliest “war” disaster of all.

All 21 Blount County Commissioners were elected and are in office as Republicans.  Only Commissioner Karen Miller and I voted against this, showing that most Republicans aren’t serious about cutting wasteful spending or eliminating failed government programs.  Furthermore, most of the commissioners do not seem to honor their oaths of office because there is no authority for the federal government’s war of poverty authorized in the United States Constitution.

Federal COPS grant approved after deadline
The commission was presented with a USDOJ Community Oriented Policing Service (COPS) grant application after the grant deadline had already passed.  The grant will pay for 75% of the salaries and benefits for 6 officers for 3 years.  The grant does not pay for equipping the officers with laptops, uniforms, weapons, or cars.  The commission was told that the county would be required to keep these positions, after the grant money runs out.

Commissioner Caylor seemed indigent that Commissioner Daly would even inquire about the county having to pay for the officers after the grant money ran out.  He said it was a savings but there is no savings.  Federal money is taxpayer money.  At the rate that the federal government is borrowing money, your children and grandchildren may be forced to pay interest to foreign investors in China and Saudi Arabia on these officers because the federal government is not paying its (our) bills now.

While the program goal and objectives were including in the grant application guide, the commission was provided no data to show that six more officers will actually improve safety in the community.  Only commissioners Daly, Miller and I voted no this grant.

Up next:
July was a doozie.  The lackadaisical attitude of several on the commission should give pause to those concerned about their community.  If you want to see better government, then seriously considering becoming that better government by either running for local office or supporting good candidates who will ensure that due diligence is done prior to each vote of the commission.

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