Hernando County Commissioner: Talk of bending the rules in favor of local company “screams good-old-boy system”

Commission divided over whether Coastal Engineering should be allowed to continue working at the airport.
Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport
Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport
Published March 21

BROOKSVILLE — A move by prominent local business Coastal Engineering to insert itself into a rotation of jobs at the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport brought a stern warning this month to Hernando County commissioners by their purchasing manager, James Wunderle.

Letting Coastal in could be a violation of law or, at the very least, a bad business practice, he said.

Commissioner John Allocco went a step further.

“I’m sorry, but it screams good-old-boy system,’’ he said. “It really does.’’

Commissioners deadlocked, 2-2, on the matter at last week’s meeting. Commission chairman Jeff Holcomb was absent and could break the tie on Tuesday.

Last year, the county announced it was seeking two engineering firms that would rotate jobs at the airport for the next three to five years. Four companies submitted their qualifications.

In the county staff’s review of the companies on Nov. 9, Coastal ranked fourth of four.

Wunderle recommended that the county begin negotiating with the two top firms, Avcon, Inc., of Orlando and Michael Baker International of Tampa.

But Cliff Manuel, president of Coastal Engineering, implored commissioners to invoke a rarely-used process that allowed them to hear oral arguments from each of the four companies and do their own ranking.

Commissioners agreed and spent hours listening to oral presentations on Jan. 22.

When the commissioner scores were added to the staff scores, Coastal Engineering rose to third among the four companies — still short of the top two.

Last week, Wunderle brought the contracts back before commissioners. He already had sent them an email outlining all the ways Coastal Engineering had inserted itself into the process, seeking the work.

"The attached communication incorporates a time line reflecting the level of forceful outside issues directed at purchasing and contracts to change the procurement process with the ultimate goal of obtaining a contract award,'' Wunderle wrote.

The county has a local-preference policy for bids, but it does not apply to professional services contracts, such as engineering.

In his email, Wunderle warned that the commission could violate the law or “call into question the integrity of the procurement process,’’ by letting Coastal Engineering into the airport engineering rotation.

At the meeting, Allocco argued against giving Coastal a spot in the rotation. The other three companies had done aviation-related work, he said, while Coastal had not.

"I don't know why it's so surprising that it ended up this way.'' Allocco said.

Commissioner Wayne Dukes fought strongly for Coastal, reading a portion of the county's rules that ultimately leaves all decisions up to commissioners. Other county departments use a three-company rotation, he said, and following that system would make Coastal one of the top three.

Coastal has been on the two-company airport rotation for the past five years and has done it's job, Dukes said. "Why would you not want to keep them around.''

“It ain’t going to cost nobody nothing,’’ he said. “It’s the logical thing to do.’’

Commissioner Steve Champion agreed with Dukes, adding that many airport jobs are infrastructure-related, rather than aviation-related. Coastal Engineering has done business with the county for decades, designing everything from road improvements to storm-water plans. The company and Manuel over the years have made small campaign contributions to Dukes, Holcomb and Allocco, as well as other county candidates.

If the process were changed to accommodate Coastal, Allocco asked, "how is this going to look?''

Companies submitted proposals based on being one of two engineers doing the work, not one of three. Changing that would impact their bottom line and might change their interest in the project, he said.

Making a decision counter to the initial ranking could affect future funding, Wunderle said. A representative of the Florida Department of Transportation, which coordinates Federal Aviation Administration grants, participated in the original ranking process.

Commissioner John Mitten, who chaired the meeting in Holcomb's absence, acknowledged that the commissioners’ ranking put Coastal in the top spot. But Mitten favored following the rules, because "there's an aspect of openness, predictability and impartiality.''

Local people might pick local businesses each time, he said, but the rules said that was not the only deciding factor.

"At some point, we've got to follow the process,'' Mitten said. The vote was tabled until the March 26 meeting.

Manuel told commissioners he was fine with whatever they decided. But he questioned a ranking system that didn't give companies extra points for having a local office.

"I'm just here asking for your consideration,'' he said.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.