The Regional District of Central Kootenay is sticking by its decision to buy office furniture from a Vancouver Island supplier even though a local company had a lower bid.
On Thursday the board upheld awarding the contract to Graphic Office Interior Ltd. instead of Cowan’s Office Supply of Nelson, without a promised independent adjudication of the process.
Chair John Kettle explained that Nelson chartered accountant Am Naqvi volunteered to carry out the review for free, but partway through, his professional association advised him against offering an opinion. The board did not seek a different adjudicator.
Asked if he thought that would expose them to more criticism, he agreed it might, “but it was the thought that counted … the board has already voted to do this. We’ve done our due diligence. I think this has been blown so far out of proportion, it’s a little scary.”
Kettle said they only took another look at it and delayed the process by a few weeks when one of the bidders publicly “questioned the credibility of our staff, the way we did it, and the directors’ decision.” But he’s confident they followed the rules and said a legal opinion bore that out.
Last month RDCK directors approved a $182,000 contract with Graphic Office to supply new office furniture for their Nelson office. This upset Cowan Office Supplies, which had a bid that was about $20,000 lower. The regional district defended its decision, explaining that the higher bid better met their specifications based on a staff review. But it held off on signing the contracts pending the outcome of today’s board meeting.
The furniture is part of an overall office renovation totalling about $662,000 before taxes. Dan Maglio Contracting of Nelson, which had the low bid of $302,176, will handle several aspects of the project. Graphic Office was also directly awarded the contract for a new file storage, reception area, and copy room for $91,545.
Two directors tried today to revisit the decision: rural Nelson’s Ramona Faust asked that a portion of the work — refurnishing the board room at an estimated cost of $36,000 — be sent out for bids. As it stands, the contract will be directly awarded through a provincial corporate supply agreement. Faust said she saw value in the upgrades, but thought they would be better served through a competitive process. However, her motion only found support from fellow rural Nelson representative Ron Mickel.
Administrator Brian Carruthers explained the board room makeover will allow it to double as an emergency operations centre, a function presently served by the old Telus building on Victoria Street, which the regional district doesn’t own. “We don’t have a secure agreement for that building and never will,” he said. “We need to make technological upgrades to operate effectively and can’t invest in a building we have no long-term tenure in.”
The current board table, which came from the regional district’s old office, is “not conducive” to an emergency centre, Carruthers said. The new emergency centre was not part of the original space plan Graphic Office developed for the board office last year but Carruthers said the idea is to make the room multi-purpose and allow electronic devices to be plugged in at the table. (Directors are issued tablet devices for regional district business.)
Rural Castlegar director Gord Zaitsoff asked that the furniture contract be revisited, but his motion was also defeated. “In the last few years, I believe we have been inconsistent in some of our policies,” he said.
However, rural Kaslo director Andy Shadrack said he had heard nothing to change his mind. “I would not vote against a local bid unless they didn’t meet the specifications. I voted on the merits of each bid and object to the way the media and others have pilloried staff and directors. I object to the way the Nelson Star has behaved.”
Rural Castlegar director Andy Davidoff successfully introduced a motion for staff to review the regional district’s purchasing policy to make sure it meets provincial and national trade agreements. He said concerned constituents approached him when they saw the Star’s coverage about the new board table and its cost. He suggested the regional district should better explain its rationale: “I think it’s important to put out messaging that makes it crystal clear what we’re doing.”
Following the debate, Paul Cowan told the Star he remained disappointed with the decisions. “We feel the outcome of this [request for proposals] was decided before it went out,” he said. “We were hopeful they would reconsider it based on savings to the taxpayers … As a taxpayer myself, I’m questioning the whole process.”
Cowan said he was bothered both by the fact his company was passed over despite having the lowest bid and that portions of the job were not sent to tender. He also expressed skepticism that provincial corporate supply agreements always guarantee the best price and service.