Jordan Lake project contract fit one vendor

January 16, 2014 

‘Sole-source contracts,” or those essentially without competitive bidding, are usually not a good idea in state government. The whole idea of bidding is to get taxpayers the best deal.

On rare occasions, the contracts can be given to companies that already do a lot of business with a particular agency or have some unique qualifications. And there are times when an emergency dictates getting a vendor who can provide action quickly.

Did the leaders of the state Senate, particularly President Pro Tem Phil Berger, have good reasons for writing in specific budget language specifications that seemed to describe exactly a type of floating water circulator made by one company, Medora Corp. of North Dakota? The company later received a state contract to use its SolarBee circulators in a $1.4 million pilot project to clean up Jordan Lake.

So far, the reasons for tailoring the law to fit Medora appear to be: We’re in charge, and we can do this.

State Auditor Beth Wood reviewed the situation and said the no-bid contract was legal. But Wood noted she and her staff were limited in their review because they didn’t have access to some records that are legally kept confidential, namely some communications by legislative staffers.

Berger’s office isn’t releasing full email records on the project’s planning and didn’t comment on Wood’s implication that the legislature discouraged competition.

Email records that are public show Medora was working with Berger’s office and Gov. Pat McCrory’s Department of the Environment and Natural Resources months before the contract entered a public bidding process.

Berger and other Republicans worked to suspend environmental rules that would have had communities upstream of the lake building protective wetlands, ponds and pollution controls. Republicans have long contended that the state’s environmental regulations are too severe and hinder business development.

So instead of having rules to keep pollution out of the lake, we now have a project that will “stir” the water in an effort to improve quality.

Berger’s office dismisses requests for more public information, which is dismissive of the taxpayers for whom he works and raises suspicions about a process that appeared to give Medora a definitive advantage over other companies.

It’s also bothersome that Berger’s office would issue an extreme repudiation of those who have questioned the project. Rep. Rick Glazier of Fayetteville, a Democrat, and Hendersonville Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady, the ones who requested that Wood review the Medora connection, were characterized as “agents of fringe environmental groups” by Berger’s office. That the reaction to Glazier and McGrady was so angry makes this entire episode, and the Medora-Berger connection, even more curious.

On its face, the entire arrangement looks simple. Berger and many Republicans representing areas upstream from Jordan Lake wanted a reason to suspend the Jordan Lake rules. Medora’s technology offered an alternative to the rules. So legislation was written to fit the company that could provide the technology and justify the suspension.

But the clarity of the motives behind the law’s closely drawn requirements doesn’t clear the murkiness of its propriety anymore than Medora’s SolarBees are likely to clear the lake.

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