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Port okays bid, but questions remain

The Tampa Port Authority settled a bidding dispute on Monday that has touched off a wider controversy over whether the agency does enough business with minority contractors.

But an initial review of the port's minority contracting procedures turned up significant problems that could require organizational changes at the authority.

For example, many departments buy services without following minority contracting rules. Also, the port's policy doesn't allow for sanctions against companies that don't meet minority hiring goals, port counsel Dale Bohner acknowledged.

The minority contracting issue surfaced two months ago when Gladstone Cooper, the only African-American on the port's governing board, balked at the staff's ranking of bidders for a contract to provide private security services.

He objected that a committee ranked minority-owned Sykes Security 10th out of 11 companies that submitted bids. Sykes had worked five years for a port subsidiary, Tampa Bay International Terminals, Cooper said, and he had heard only good things about its work.

The port board twice postponed voting to authorize negotiations with the top-ranked firm, Fox Protective Services.

With only Cooper voting no, the board agreed Monday to begin negotiating a contract with Fox to provide uniformed officers at the port's headquarters and gates along six roads into areas of the port. Cooper had asked the board to throw out all the proposals and let companies bid again.

He pressed the question of how the winning bidder was chosen. Although the port's procurement rules say price is a key factor, he said, Fox didn't submit the lowest bid and wasn't highest ranked for the quality of its work.

"What were we looking for: price or qualifications?" Cooper asked.

The answer was both, said Bohner, the port attorney. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement requires the port to uphold specific _ and frequently changing _ procedures for port security officers, he said.

So the selection committee used a formula that counted companies' qualifications and experience for 50 percent of their ranking and cost and profit for 45 percent. The remaining 5 percent was for their use of minority- and women-owned contractors.

Changing the rules after bids were submitted could leave the port open to litigation, said County Commissioner Pat Frank. But she supported "a good hard look at how we review minority contracts."

Before the vote on the security contract, board members were given a preliminary review that found various problems with the port's minority contacting policies. According to the review by an outside attorney and a consultant:

+ There is no centralized procurement process, leaving many departments to contract for services without considering the port's minority-contracting rules.

+ The agency makes "little to no" attempt to notify minority companies about pending contracts.

+ While the port tracks whether construction and engineering contractors meet goals for using minority subcontractors, there isn't evidence officials follow up on other providers of goods and services.

Even when officials catch contractors not hiring enough minority companies, Bohner said, the authority can't withhold payments or keep them from bidding on future business.

"Now, if they don't meet (the goal), there's no way to enforce it," he said. In January, staff members expect to present the board with proposals to tighten up the policy, Bohner said.

The review recommends the port move to a centralized contracting office with responsibility for preparing requests for all bids. The agency also should launch and aggressive program to notify minority businesses of upcoming contract bids, the review said.

In other business Monday, the board voted to raise port director George Williamson's annual salary by $19,000 to $195,000, a 10.8 percent raise.

Williamson hasn't had a raise since 2000, board chairman Joseph Diaz said. The raise brings Williamson's pay in line with directors of large ports including Miami ($209,000), Charleston, S.C. ($205,000), Houston ($195,000), New Orleans ($186,000) and Savannah ($179,000).

_ Steve Huettel can be reached at huettelsptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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