War On Dumb

On the surface, it’s one of those stories too juicy to ignore. Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford wants to build fountains. And not just those penny-ante faux wishing wells they used to have in all the malls. Mayor Langford wants to build serious fountains, enormous fountains of class and distinction. Mayor Langford wants the kinds of fountains you see in National Lampoon’s European Vacation.

He wants them all over Birmingham, even in Northside. Never mind that whole swaths of the city lack a decent place to shop for groceries. Never mind those folks in Collegeville whose only access to and from their neighborhood is blocked for hours every day by trains parked on the tracks. We’re going to build fountains, instead.

And not just fountains — we’re going to build public squares to go with them. Mayor Langford wants squares bustling with people. Never mind those two city blocks of Linn Park outside his office window. Never mind the fountain and reflecting pools there that work only half the time. Never mind that instead of actual water in the Linn Park reflecting pool, we’ve painted the concrete blue. Whoever wanted to congregate in Linn Park but homeless people, anyway?

Mayor Langford wants serious squares like Trafalgar Square in London, England. He wants the kinds of public squares you can see from outer space.

And all this must be news, right? After all, it’s splashed across The Birmingham News — front page above the fold, complete with art of the sugarplums dancing in the mayor’s head. Online, there’s even video of the mayor Googling away like a fifth grader putting together a research project.

It’s the easy story. And why not cover it? After all, when Mayor Langford told the world he would bring the 2020 Olympics to Birmingham, we treated that like serious news. The mayor spent thousands of dollars redecorating City Hall. Now he wants to spend millions of dollars redecorating the city.

On the surface, it’s one of those stories too juicy to ignore. But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? It’s the sort of story that keeps you looking at the surface — and not at what’s going on beneath. And this week there was a lot going on beneath the surface at Birmingham City Hall.

Why no no-bids?
“People don’t think we can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time,” Mayor Langford told the city council Tuesday. He was complaining about the people complaining about his lack of focus and inability to begin, much less finish, one project before dreaming up another.

Indeed, the mayor is a multi-tasker. While he was wowing everyone with his fountains plan with one hand, he’s handing out no-bid contracts with the other.

However, on Tuesday, the city council delayed one such contract after the proposal failed the smell test.

The mayor’s office had proposed to give a computer consulting firm, Tech Providers Inc., a $3.2 million contract to install software and train city employees how to use it.
That’s a pretty steep price to pay to install some accounting software. But wait. There’s more.

As it turns out, last January the City of Birmingham already gave the same company a $1.3 million contract to do essentially the same thing. That contract, according to the Jan. 2 council agenda, was supposed to last 12 months. However, Mayor Langford and the company’s president, Claude Estes IV, told the council that unless the company receives more money, its ability to do things like run the city’s payroll system could be in jeopardy. According to the mayor, if the council doesn’t approve this contract, the company could up and leave.

Sound screwy? Oh, we’re just getting started.

The company, Tech Providers Inc., has a peculiar address — an office on Magnolia Avenue. As it turns out, that’s the same address as another tech company, Ion Interactive.

Earlier this year, the city gave Ion Interactive a no-bid contract to provide camera surveillance work to the Birmingham Police Department. The city doesn’t actually own the surveillance cameras or operate them, as that would get Birmingham tangled up in silly things like public bid laws. Ion Interactive’s contract was neatly packaged as a “professional service” contract, making it exempt from the bid law, even though there were other companies around the country that had done similar work in other cities and offered similar products and services.

Let’s go deeper, shall we?

Not only do Ion Interactive and Tech Providers Inc. share an address. They also share at least one owner — Claude Estes IV. When questioned by the council, he said Tuesday that he is a stockholder in Ion Interactive. He’s also listed in the company’s incorporation documents.

But this gets even better.

This isn’t the first time Tech Providers Inc. has received no-bid contracts from the government. In 2001, the company drew scrutiny after it received millions in no-bid contracts from the state during Gov. Don Siegelman’s administration. To be fair, the company received contracts from Gov. Fob James’ administration, too.

However, Tech Provider’s annual no-bid contracts nearly tripled under the Siegelman administration — at the same time it hired an Alabama lobbying and political consulting firm closely associated with the Siegelman administration called the Matrix Group.
Here’s a little piece of political trivia: The Matrix Group has a connection to Birmingham City Hall, too. It managed Mayor Langford’s 2007 campaign.

Tech Providers and its previous no-bid contracts were no secret. In fact, they were reported thoroughly in 2001 by The Birmingham News. After reporters Brett Blackledge and Kim Chandler shed light on the deals, the Siegelman administration became so embarrassed that it began putting these kinds of contracts out for public bid.

There used to be a time at the News when working the words “no-bid contract” into a story won praise from on-high, at least when laying into a Democratic governor. But not this week.

Langford’s fountains: 32 paragraphs.

Mysterious no-bid tech contracts: 0.

At least the city council paid attention, referring the contract back to committee.

RIP regional cooperation

Only minutes before the council heard about the no-bid tech contract, it finally made the inevitable vote to end the biggest and best experiment in regional cooperation — the Storm Water Management Authority.

For more than a decade a coalition of municipalities and Jefferson County has monitored pollution from county storm sewers, reporting violations to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Federal environmental law requires local governments to monitor storm sewer pollution.
It was regional cooperation at its best. When the group first formed in 1997, then-mayor Richard Arrington estimated that it would save the city more than $1 million a year. The agency was an even better bargain for smaller municipalities that could barely afford police and fire protection, much less environmental police.

However, the agency did its job too well, making big developers follow the law and not muddy up the county’s rivers and streams with their runoff. When SWMA’s membership came up for renewal two years ago, a coalition of developers, landowners and a local engineering firm began lobbying member cities to withdraw from SWMA. The engineering firm, Malcolm Pirnie, pitched its services in SWMA’s place and also made substantial campaign contributions to many of the politicians making the decisions to break with SWMA.

This year, Birmingham’s contribution to SWMA would have been about $775,000. That’s nearly 40 percent of the agency’s budget. Without those funds, it is unlikely that SWMA will be able to provide sufficient service to the remaining members. SWMA might have finally sunk.

Instead, the city has decided to go it alone with Malcolm Pirnie. The $540,000 contract will save the city money, according to the mayor’s office. However, the contract seems to say that the firm will train city employees to monitor storm water runoff. Where these employees will come from, how much the city will pay them and how long it will take the Jefferson County Personnel Board to approve any new positions is unclear.

In actuality, the proposal seems to put the onus of environmental responsibility on the ADEM. If you want to shirk responsibility for enforcing the law and make sure developers stay happy, the city couldn’t do much better.

The SWMA story might not have the sex appeal for the broadcast news. By the time the issue came up on the agenda, the TV cameras had another story for six o’clock — a pipedream proposal from City Councilor Steven Hoyt to have the city buy the county’s sanitary sewer system.

Public bids and environmental protection — what do those things matter when we will soon have massive public plazas and world-class wishing wells?

Mayor Langford is no fool. He knows how the media works, and he knows if you give them something outrageous enough, something juicy enough, the rest they will ignore.