Stressed and out: City spokesman resigns after bid-rigging investigation
Rob Schilling has long railed against an allegedly fortress-like atmosphere in City Hall, one that allegedly kept him in the dark even while an elected member of City Council. But, on March 21, less than two hours after a Schilling exposé revealed an improper contract award, a well-known head rolled. Citing "stress," city spokesperson Ric Barrick said he had resigned.
"I'm frankly troubled," says Schilling, "Who knows what else is going on?"
What may be known as Barrickgate was uncovered by Schilling, a self-styled watchdog and WINA radio talk show host, whose investigation began in 2010 with a Freedom of Information Act request for a week of Barrick's emails.
"I realized it was serious, and I didn't want to take it lightly," says Schilling. "That's why I took over a year to investigate it. I understood it could be detrimental to Ric Barrick."
Indeed, it turned into a criminal investigation. But the investigator, Orange-based special prosecutor Diana Wheeler, found no criminal intent– just an effort to work with a vendor who, Barrick asserted to her, provided the best graphics services for the city's TV10 cable access channel.
"There were questionable actions, some less than satisfactory answers to certain questions asked, and some apparent violations of rules and practices," the Orange commonwealth's attorney wrote in a March 16 investigation letter to Judge Edward Hogshire.
"That issue has been resolved in my favor if you did not know, and I would rather leave it at that," Barrick wrote in an email to a reporter a few hours before his resignation became public.
On March 22, he says that he had submitted resignation three weeks ago, before the investigation was complete. "Although the issue Mr. Schilling brought to our attention did lead to additional discussions about my duties here at City Hall, the investigation is not the reason that I resigned as assumed by Mr. Schilling," says Barrick in another email.
One of the reasons Wheeler cites for not prosecuting is that there was no personal benefit to Barrick, no pre-existing relationship with the favored vendor, and that Barrick's actions, "though in error and improper, were simply an effort to obtain the best product or service for the city at the best price."
Continues Wheeler: "It is my belief that most if not all of his errors were the result of ignorance and not any bad, malicious, or devious intent, or collusion."
So what's wrong with trying to get the lowest price for taxpayers?
"The whole purpose of public procurement is transparency," says Rick Grimm, CEO of a Herndon-based association called the Institute for Public Procurement, "to provide the best value for the public for their tax dollar."
Circumventing the competitive bidding process with a non-public bid raises red flags for Grimm and, he says, is "totally inappropriate."
In this case, the lower bid may have ended up costing more because it provided the services for a shorter term, and Barrick indicated that he intended to renew the contract to the favored vendor.
There's been no shortage of personal friction between Schilling and Barrick. On his show, Schilling has criticized Barrick's $95,000 salary, accused him of obfuscation, and of being "incompetent."
When Barrick removed Schilling from his distribution list of city press releases, the radio host submitted his request for a week of Barrick's emails, and noticed that Barrick appeared to be negotiating a contract.
Barrick had launched an RFQ– request for quotation– to five vendors November 15, 2010, with a due date one week later. The RFQ noted that the job would go to the lowest bidder, according to Schilling's report.
Barrick's preferred vendor, Weather Metrics, came in with a bid of $26,000, while Weather Central was the low bidder at $18,490– each for 36 months of service. After Barrick told Weather Metrics what the low bid was, it modified its proposal to a lower amount– and just 18 months of service.
"The bid ultimately accepted was represented by Mr. Barrick as having been the lowest responsive bid from a responsible bidder, which it appears not to have been," writes the special prosecutor.
"From the moment we became aware of the concerns raised in this situation, we cooperated fully with the investigation," City Manager Maurice Jones says in an email. "I believe Ric was attempting to get the best product for the City."
Nonetheless, Jones appears to have accepted the resignation as city spokesperson while allowing Barrick to retain a temporary, $27.64-an-hour post with the city maintaining web and social media presence, as well promoting the city's 250th anniversary.
"The temporary position is new and will be paid for out of salary savings within the City Manager's Office budget," says Jones.
"I do realize, in hindsight, that I did not follow the internal procedures of an RFQ properly, but it was my very first experience with procurement and, in the future, I will certainly be better at dotting the i's," says Barrick.
Mayor Satyendra Huja, approached the day after the resignation at a public event, says such post-bid maneuvering constitutes a violation.
"If they don't follow procedure, it's not acceptable," says Huja, asserting that Barrick's resignation was the best outcome, and the investigation of procurement practices should not reflect badly on the city. "It reflects badly on the person, not the city."
Barrick, the son of a former city prosecutor, served as director of communications for Charlottesville since 2006. Before that, he was news director/meteorologist for the Newsplex television stations.
Schilling says he wasn't surprised by Barrick's resignation. "It was confirmation that this was detrimental information, and he probably took appropriate action."
The radio host is perplexed by one thing. "It defies logic that if the guy did something that makes him resign," says Schilling, "the city would keep him on."
Updated 6:20pm with Barrick's comments.
Updated March 26 with details about Barrick's new position.Attached Documents: