The Gainesville City Commission chose an outside firm to handle the distribution of $7 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to local nonprofits at Thursday’s meeting.
But the commission decided to go with the company that city staff ranked at No. 3 instead of the No. 1 choice, Baker Tilly, prompting questions of legality and past precedent.
The commission finalized the $7 million slice for nonprofits in October and directed city staff to hire an outside firm to control the process on Dec. 6.
Interim City Manager Cynthian Curry said the request for proposals (RFP) opened the next day and closed on Dec. 21, netting five viable applicants. The evaluation committee—composed of community builders and city staff—received the proposals the next day to analyze.
Each member would rank the companies based on criteria in the city’s “Professional & Other Services Handbook.”
The evaluations came in on Jan. 3 and Baker Tilly, an international advisory firm the city has worked with in the past, ended up on top followed by CliftonLarsonAlle, Community Foundation of North Central Florida, UHY and IParametrics.
If approved, the city would begin contract negotiations with Baker Tilly and proceed down the line until a contract could be reached with one of the applicants.
But commissioners expressed interest in moving the Community Foundation of North Central Florida (CFNCF) to the No. 1 applicant spot and bumping down the other applicants.
City staff would then start the negotiations process with the community foundation.
“I’m not going to say anything negative about [Baker Tilly’s] application,” Commissioner David Arreola said. “My interest in changing the rankings, which is fairly regularly done from the dais, really rests more in what division of these funds are going to be used for.”
He said the money goes to local nonprofits, and the CFNCF has developed strong relationships with those nonprofits and has an expertise in the area.
“I think we would be remiss to not select a group that has that type of background,” Arreola said.
Commissioner Harvey Ward agreed with his fellow commissioners, noting that staff ranks based on criteria but the commission considers other intangible factors.
He said the intangibles in this case lean heavily toward CFNCF.
“We need people who understand Gainesville, who understand North Central Florida, to be able to do this,” Ward said.
Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said he would have placed the applicants in a different order as well. However he also had concerns with CFNCF’s proposed timeline.
The proposal would set an initial meeting on Jan. 14 and give nonprofits three weeks to submit applications.
Hayes-Santos wanted staff to know that the process should take the time needed to be open and inclusive. Curry said staff could work with the outside company on the timeline.
City Attorney Daniel Nee cautioned the commission about deviating from the city staff’s recommendations. He wanted to make sure the commissioners had reviewed all the proposals, considered the criteria the staff had used and had reasons for the change that are “well-founded in case of a challenge.”
He deferred to Senior City Assistant Attorney Lisa Bennett.
“When you make a decision, even if it’s to change your evaluation team, you need to base it on the facts in the record, otherwise your decision could be deemed arbitrary and capricious and subject to being overturned in a court of law,” Bennett said.
She said if the commission has concerns about the ranking, it needs to sit in the evaluation team’s place—reading the request for qualifications, reviewing all the responses and ranking the companies based on the criteria listed.
Commissioner Reina Saco said she was also concerned about the process and not running afoul of being arbitrary and capricious.
She likes the work CFNCF does and their expertise in the matter but didn’t want to wait another week for the commission to evaluate the proposals themselves, or the commission could risk switching the ranking at the regular meeting and encounter problems down the road.
Ward said the commission had reordered proposals from staff’s recommendation in the past but had never been warned against doing it.
“It’s time to move forward, ya’ll,” Ward said. “Process is wonderful until it stops people from getting the help that they need.”
Mayor Lauren Poe said both Baker Tilly and CFNCF had areas of expertise, pointing out Baker Tilly brings strength on compliance issues and conforming to federal guidelines and monitoring, while CFNCF wins out with identifying, connecting and evaluating local nonprofits.
He added an ideal situation would be the two companies working together on distributing the money.
Poe said he couldn’t remember a time the commission had changed the staff ranking and certainly didn’t recall the entire commission doing the city staff’s job of ranking the companies themselves.
“I believe that we’re doing ourselves a disservice by skipping over several safeguards that are built into our system to make sure that we are being objective and responsive to the criteria that we laid out,” Poe said.
He said moving the companies around because the commission knows one company in particular and the good work they do isn’t enough.
“I am so disappointed that we are at this spot—so disappointed,” Ward said. “There’s a pretty clear choice here, and I don’t want us to get a protest, but we have some processes that need fixing.”
The commission ended up voting 4-1 to switch CFNCF to the No. 1 applicant and have city staff start negotiations with the company. Poe dissented with Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker absent.
Saco changed her mind late in the discussion. She said the commission will encounter a problem no matter what decision they make but said the CFNCF should handle the process and she would therefore vote for the motion.
“I’m willing to live with the consequences, advised against by our attorneys, rather than live with the consequence of another four weeks, ideally, or just taking more time away from our neighbors to get this money,” Saco said.
The commission will take up the ARPA issue again on Jan. 13.