In an auction, the highest bid wins. In competitive bidding, it’s usually the other way around — which is why Gina Boyleston is upset.
Her company, Louis Boyleston Realty & Auction, has been conducting the City of Pensacola’s surplus auctions for the last 35 years. This year, the auction contract went out for bid in a private RFQ (request for quotation) to four firms. While Boyleston has charged a 10% commission in the past, she lowered it to 8% for their bid to be competitive with any challengers. Last month, she learned that the contract was awarded to Garth’s Antiques and Auction Gallery (the only other company to respond to the RFQ) even though their bid was higher, at 10%.
Boyleston took her grievance to the Pensacola City Council this week. She shared a string of emails between city staff (obtained through a public records request) that, she believes, shows the decision to give Garth’s the contract had already been made before the RFQ process was finished.
Last October, Rita Lee, Mayor Hayward’s executive assistant, emailed Purchasing Director George Maiberger saying that Winston Garth had called and expressed an interest in his company providing auction services for the city. Maiberger began putting together a request for quotes in March, approved by City Administrator Bill Reynolds, and the RFQ packet went out to vendors on April 2.
On April 19, Reynolds emailed Maiberger saying, “The Mayor would like to use Mr. Winston Garth as our auctioneer for surplus city equipment. … Please coordinate with him.”
Maiberger reminded Reynolds about the RFQ, which was still out and had a closing date of May 2.
“[G]ot it,” replied Reynolds, “didn’t recall.”
On May 3, Maiberger emailed Reynolds that there were two respondents to the RFQ, Boyleston and Garth’s, and that Boyleston had a lower bid that, based on previous year’s gross sales, would save the city over $2,000.
“[City Fleet Manager] Doug [Resmondo] is recommending that the City contract with Boyleston, providing the lowest quoted fee, for Auction Services for 2012,” Maiberger wrote. “I concur. Please advise.”
Ten days later, Reynolds responded: “The Mayor is interested in giving others the opportunity to participate in contracts with the city. Please move forward with Mr. Garth per his direction.”
Maiberger warned that “this decision may hurt the City in obtaining competitive pricing in the future if vendors submit their price as part of an open competition and then are not awarded the contract based on price or some other stated factor. If vendors ‘perceive’ that the process is not fair and open, they may not respond to future solicitations. As the Purchasing Manager, I wanted to share my concerns.”
“The Mayor specifically is looking to expand those who have opportunities with the city,” Reynolds replied. “Had the review determined these firms were of different caliber, the result would have been different. We should always look for opportunity to bring new blood and thought processes into our operations and not simply rely upon past practices.”
In her email to council members, Gina Boyleston said the decision to award to a higher bidder “reeks of favoritism and the same good ole boy tactics that citizens despise.”
“The only conclusion that I can come to, since his decision wasn’t based upon proper comparison of the bids, is that it is obvious that the Mayor had promised the auction to Garth,” she said. “This is grossly unjust.”
In a phone conversation, Boyleston said she had gotten the impression of a relationship between Hayward and Garth.
“I read the newspaper, and I see their names from time to time,” Boyleston said. For example, in a January “Page 3 Mingle” article by Dee Dee Davis, Garth was listed as one of two dozen guests at a City Hall surprise party celebrating the mayor’s first year in office.
Boyleston brought up the dispute at the open forum segment of Thursday’s council meeting, saying she had received no further response from the mayor’s office.
“As my daddy always said, there ain’t no half-fresh egg,” she said. “It’s either fresh or it’s rotten, and in my opinion, this one is rotten.”
Councilwoman Sherri Myers made a motion to hold a special council meeting to investigate the matter.
“I think that this is a perfect situation where this council should exercise its powers under the charter to investigate this situation, to call a special meeting, and if we need to, to subpoena the mayor to come before us and explain to us how this came to be,” Myers said.
Councilwoman Maren DeWeese seconded the motion, but after a lengthy discussion, offered a “friendly amendment” that, in lieu of a special meeting, the council should simply request full documentation related to the bidding process to discuss at next month’s regular meeting. She said the city owed Boyleston an official response “at a minimum.”
“I would almost beg support of council on this,” DeWeese said. “This is our job.”
Bill Reynolds characterized the 35-year arrangement with Boyleston a “sweetheart deal with no open process, not even a contract, being decided between a member of the public who had a firm and a member of staff.” He said that the mayor’s intention was to inject more competition into the process. After all, another company may have different methods that could yield better results for the city — beyond a few thousand dollars’ difference in commission — which might not have been tried otherwise.
“He has the authority — without an RFQ, without anything — to just have said, ‘Mr. Garth, you get the contract.’” Reynolds told the council. “If you’re looking to change the rules, that’s a different matter, but we should play by the rules that are actually in place now.”
“Surely, the mayor had the legal right to choose whoever he wanted to,” Boyleston responded. “But he didn’t do that. He sent out a request for quote.”
She said that by sending out a request for quotes, the city should be bound by the rules in the RFQ, which stated that the award of bids would be “based on the lowest and best responsible respondent meeting all conditions and requirements of the specifications.” Boyleston also said that, because of the specialized and complex nature of auctioning titled vehicles, her firm was the only respondent who met the qualifications of the RFQ, and that the city’s potential losses could be much bigger than the commission in question.
“You’re not just going to lose 2%. You’re going to lose tens of thousands of dollars,” she said. “These are apples and oranges. These are not the same kind of company. This is like telling the dental hygienist to run on in there and do that root canal.”
Ultimately, the substitute motion by DeWeese failed on a 4-4 vote. Councilmen Hall, Johnson, Spencer and Wu voted against it, and Councilman Townsend was absent.
Reached for comment, Winston Garth disagreed with Boyleston’s claim that his company does not have experience in selling titled vehicles.
“We do the same things at the college auctions,” Garth said, “when people buy vehicles from Pensacola State College or UWF.”
He added that there was nothing improper about the mayor awarding the contract to him.
“I could say the same thing if he gave it to her,” he said. “We’re in a competitive business. I never complained when she had it.”