What is the purpose of an elected city commission? As representatives of the citizens how should commissioners direct the affairs of government? Should they simply be an affirmative “rubber stamp” for staff policy and actions, or should they play a larger role in the decision-making process?
Some would say that we hire professionals to run our city because elected city commissioners can’t possibly know what it takes to run a city of our size. Take that at face value and it might typically be true, but in order to represent the people they serve, city commissioners and paid professional staff should operate at some degree of healthy equilibrium.
City commissioners are typically folks who have resided in Great Falls for some time and are familiar with our history. They deserve the opportunity to play a more active role in decision making and policy management when important issues arise.
A case in point is the $20M, now $20.2M, Indoor Recreation and Aquatics Facility process. Learning in May of 2020 that a Defense Department grant might be available for a long sought-after indoor pool facility, the Great Falls Park and Recreation Director, Steve Herrig, took the reins in his own hands to complete a pre-application with little more than a month before it was due.
Realizing that the City needed help to develop the application, Herrig called a couple of architectural firms and asked if they would be interested in the grant project. Four firms were solicited to provide a fee and qualifications.
This solicitation was not, I repeat, not, formally, or informally advertised so that all interested architectural firms could respond.
Later, the City Attorney, Sarah Sexe, advised that under Montana law it was not required to publicly advertise for services since the projected professional fee did not exceed $50K. In other words, the City could have called anyone of their choosing and awarded the contract.
The problem with that argument is that three other firms were asked to submit qualifications and fee proposals, but all firms in Great Falls were not. The City reported that fee proposals ran between $18.5K and $30K and the services project was awarded to the low bidder who touted their extensive experience with the soils conditions at the originally listed site and later announced that they would donate their services for free.
The elected city commission did not provide oversight and review of the method for securing the grant development services.
If the city commissioners had been consulted, they surely would have required that all local firms were notified, and afforded the opportunity to respond.
At the October 13, 2020 city commission meeting, Park and Recreation Director Steve Herrig responded to claims that the process was unfair by saying that the city was not required to hold a competitive request for proposals, “By state statute, we didn’t have to go after bids for proposals, we could have just appointed it. We felt this was the best way”.
Director Herrig was wrong and the subsequent RFP published in August proved his lack of experience by including a rendering of the facility by the firm that was awarded the pre-application contract, something that is never done in an RFP. It is no wonder that concerns were raised that the “playing field was not level”.