Open Forum: A ‘whiff of mendacity’?

Posted: July 10, 2013

The Frederick County Board of Supervisors, at their meeting tonight, will offer the public a look at an unsolicited proposal received two months ago for a new county government building, estimated to cost $80 million. The proposal was sealed until June 25, as prescribed by law, waiting for any additional proposal(s) to be submitted. To no surprise, none were.

The law under which proposals such as this one can be submitted is titled The Private-Public Education Facilities Services and Infrastructure Act of 2002 (PPEA), amended 2009. The proposals presented under this act should be for construction, renovation, or expansion of facilities “devoted primarily to public use and typically involves facilities critical to public health, safety, and welfare.”

PPEA also allows for both solicited and unsolicited proposals: “An agency can publicize needs and encourage interested parties to submit proposals — when received without issuance of a Request for Proposal (RFP) the submitted proposal shall be treated as an unsolicited proposal.”

When a proposal is opened by the receiving agency it is evaluated and may be rejected or sent to an appropriate committee for review and recommendation. In general, projects such as this would be referred to the county’s Planning Committee, which provides input on all planning, zoning and land-use matters. In this case, the proposal seems to be headed for the Public Works Committee, which provides advice on such topics as engineering, building inspection, the animal shelter, landfill policies, recycling, erosion and sediment control, and street-name signs.

The make-up of these two committees is strikingly different as well. The Planning Committee has two members from each magisterial district and a member-at-large. Liaisons with the City of Winchester and the Board of Supervisors also attend. The Public Works Committee consists of a chairman and five members. The chairman of the committee is a member of the Board of Supervisors and the members are all appointed by the chairman of the Board of Supervisors. Currently two of those members are also supervisors, leaving only three citizen members. This is hardly representative of the voters in the entire county.

Given the nature of the proposal — a new home for the county government — and the makeup of the group reviewing it, 50 percent from the Board of Supervisors, I suggest those members recuse themselves from the discussion and vote on whether to recommend this project for further action. That would eliminate any suggestion of favoritism or prejudice for the project. Or, assign it to the Planning Committee which has a much more balanced representative membership.

I have a serious question about the origins of the proposal. My experience in the corporate world is that no proposal like this one is entirely unsolicited. Somewhere there was probably a conversation, a stated supposition, a “what if” type of comment, directed or overheard, indicating a proposal for a new county building would be favorably received. Few, if any, private entities would arbitrarily spend the time and money required to set up a specifically directed LLC, write a completely unsolicited proposal, and pay the fees required unless they thought the idea would receive serious consideration.

Add these suspicions to the announcement the proposal will be assigned to a committee that does not truly represent the entire county, where half the members have a vested interest in the outcome, and I begin to detect “a whiff of mendacity” to paraphrase a character in a Tennessee Williams play.

The question is: “Do we need an $80 million building, for which the taxpayers will ultimately have to pay?” Given the current economy and the continuing growth of the size of government at all levels, with corresponding increases in taxes, can we afford it? My supervisor knows my position on this issue. I hope knowing a bit more about the process will help others to discuss this with their supervisor.

Margaret Hobble is a resident of Frederick County.