OIG report faults Solid Waste Authority on consultant’s pay, hiring

The Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County made a series of errors in hiring and paying a consultant during a disparity study, according to a report from the county’s Office of Inspector General.

That report, undertaken at the behest of Commissioner Paulette Burdick, questioned $104,533 in Solid Waste Authority spending for the consultant, research professor George La Noue, and the disparity study’s author, Mason Tillman Associates of Oakland, Calif.

In November, The Palm Beach Post reported on concerns raised by Commissioner Mack Bernard about the hiring of La Noue, known in contracting circles as an ardent foe of disparity studies and of race-based contract targets.

Mason Tillman found hiring disparities and recommended the authority set aside a portion of contracts for women- and minority-owned firms. La Noue did not produce a public report.

On Friday, the county sued Mason Tillman to turn over background documents from disparity studies it conducted for the Solid Waste Authority and for the county as a whole.

Those documents include the names of women and minority business owners who, after Mason Tillman promised them anonymity, described discrimination they say they faced trying to get county contracts. Those documents were sought initially as part of a far-reaching records request by the Associated General Contractors of America, which opposed set-asides.

The county’s suit and the OIG’s findings are seen by some women and minority business owners as more evidence that the county in general — and the Solid Waste Authority in particular — is not committed to addressing the race and gender disparities Mason Tillman found in its studies.

Bernard, the commission’s only black member, pushed for the disparity studies, both of which found that businesses owned by women and minorities got far fewer and less lucrative government contracts than their presence in the marketplace suggested they should have received.

He has been critical of the Solid Waste Authority, arguing that its leadership resisted a disparity study and sought to delay race- and gender-specific targets until after garbage-hauling contracts worth $450 million were awarded. SWA officials have denied those allegations.

SWA hired La Noue to provide feedback on Mason Tillman’s work without seeking bids from others and without the approval of the authority’s board, which is made up of the seven county commissioners. The authority paid La Noue almost $68,000, including for work performed after his original contract expired.

The Aug. 14 OIG report said SWA Executive Director Mark Hammond “exceeded his contracting authority” by extending La Noue’s contract without board approval. Hammond’s staff also did not document the “unusual circumstances” that would have precluded the agency from seeking bids from other would-be consultants, the OIG report states.

“I’ve always thought the Solid Waste Authority staff improperly paid George La Noue and that George La Noue should never have been hired,” Bernard said. “Dr. La Noue is to kill or disparage every disparity study. That’s who they hired behind our back.”

In addition the OIG found that the authority “did not properly manage” its contract with Mason Tillman, resulting in overpaying the firm by $36,554.

Hammond, in an official response to the OIG report, said his agency agreed with most of the findings. But he disputed the report’s contention that the SWA did not document the unusual circumstances that exempted the agency from seeking bids from consultants other than La Noue.

“The phrase ‘unusual circumstances’ is not a defined term in the SWA’s purchasing manual, and as such, is not a prescriptive term with defined limits,” Hammond wrote. “When taken in the entire context of the sentence, it is ultimately the executive director’s judgment as to whether a transaction should be exempt or not. It is the opinion of the SWA staff that the exemption was justified.”

Hammond said the OIG’s questioning of the entire amount La Noue was paid is “overstated and misleading.”

Commissioners are expected to discuss the issue of contracting — specifically the county’s efforts to get background documents from Mason Tillman — when they meet on Tuesday.

Bernard fired an early shot in that skirmish Monday, saying County Attorney Denise Nieman acted “improperly” in filing suit against Mason Tillman without getting approval from commissioners.

“I believe the county attorney should have put it on the agenda,” Bernard said.

Nieman said her office had no choice but to file suit, given its unsuccessful efforts to get Mason Tillman to provide documents the county needed to satisfy a public records request from the contractors trade group.

“Had we waited to be sued by the AGC, which suit was imminent, we would have have no defense,” Nieman said, adding that losing that court fight would mean “very probably not only having to turn over the records but paying attorney’s fees and whatever other consequences would come from not complying with the law.”

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