Library Outsourcing RFP: A Fair Process?

helling_libraryI recommend reading the Library Outsourcing FAQ (Frequently-Asked Questions) document. It’s constantly growing with the addition of new questions from the citizens of Nevada County. Today, when I read it, it was about eleven pages long, and reading it prompted me to send an email with these new questions to the county:

In response to a previous question in the FAQ, you said:

“The content of the proposals will not be made public until the evaluation committee has completed its evaluation and made a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors. If that recommendation is to enter into a contract with one of the responding firms, the content of the proposals will not be disclosed until negotiations are complete, but prior to action by the Board of Supervisors.” (FAQ, p. 9).

NEW QUESTION #1:
Why won’t the general public be given an opportunity to evaluate the content of competing proposals and make comments to the “evaluation committee” about the relative merits of each, prior to the final recommendation of that committee? Isn’t this more in keeping with the spirit of open government?

NEW QUESTION #2:
If the recommendation of the evaluation committee is to enter into a contract with one of the responding firms, will there be an opportunity — after the negotiations are complete, but before action is taken by the Board of Supervisors — for the public to review the complete proposal and then to make public comments to the Board?

I’m troubled by how late in the process the public will be allowed to see the contents of the proposals, as opposed to seeing merely the names of the responders, which will “be posted on the county’s website at www.mynevadacounty.com/purchasing on November 19, the day the proposals are received.”

Other questions occurred to me as I read the FAQ.

First, I had previously asked whether the clear requirement for contractor financial openness specified in section 5.6.6 of the RFP would automatically disqualify LSSI from consideration, since LSSI is reputed to keep that information secret. My question was sensibly and properly converted to a more generic form (without singling out LSSI) before it was posted and answered in the FAQ (emphasis mine):

QUESTION: Since Section 5.6.6 of Nevada County’s RFP for Library Services states that ”Contractor will provide the County with annual audited financial statements of the Company to demonstrate fiscal soundness,” will bids be rejected if they do not meet the requirement specified in Section 5.6.6?

ANSWER: Section 5 of the RFP lists all those services being requested by the County and the criteria that we would expect a service provider to meet. It is common in a process such as this to receive proposals that meet most, but not all, of the criteria, in which case the County would take that into consideration in evaluating the proposal. If that proposal was determined to be the best of those received, the County would negotiate with the provider, depending on how critical the unsatisfied criteria are to the County’s overall objectives. Section 3.7 of the RFP elaborates on this process.” (FAQ, p. 9)

This answer seems to imply that Nevada County might be willing to relax — or even drop? — the RFP section 5.6.6 requirement  for financial openness. I sincerely hope that this is not the case. I would expect that this requirement — alone among all the others contained in the RFP — would never be abandoned or even relaxed. This was near the top on the list of reasons that the town of Dartmouth, Massachusettes, decided to not contract with LSSI.

The Dartmouth report determined that “LSSI is a privately-held company and does not disclose earnings. We have no way of knowing how solvent they are, how much profit they make or how long they will be in business.”

Now, keep in mind the suggestion to treat the RFP Section 5.6.6 requirement for financial transparency as negotiable, while you read the answers to these other questions in the FAQ:

QUESTION: Does a contractor have an obligation to be transparent? Will it have to disclose to the Board or to county citizens its budget or how it’s using the County’s money?

ANSWER: The County would not be selling or giving the library system to a contractor. See FAQ on “Is the County proposing to sell the Libraries to a private company?” If the Board of Supervisors decides to enter into a contract for library services, the contract will be very detailed and spell out what services the contractor will perform, and for what costs. There would be very clear accountability for payments and services rendered, and the contract would be available for the public to inspect. The request for proposals (RFP) section 5.6, Budget and Finance, specifically requires the contractor to provide monthly and annual financial and performance reports, and allows the County to audit their company financial statements and files. In addition to this, the County-employed County Librarian would be continuously overseeing the contractor’s performance, and the current Citizen’s Oversight Committee will be monitoring sales tax revenue and inspecting the Library’s overall budget. Many items in the Library’s annual budget would not be under the control of the contractor at all, such as the materials budget which the County Librarian would be managing and approving all purchases. Read the RFP document for a deeper understanding of how a contract for library services would work. (FAQ, p. 8).

QUESTION: How will a contractor be monitored to ensure good service?

ANSWER: The County-employed County Librarian would be continuously overseeing the contractor’s performance and contract, and the current Citizen’s Oversight Committee would be monitoring sales tax revenue and inspecting the Library’s overall budget. The RFP section 5.6, Budget and Finance, specifically requires that the contractor provide monthly and annual financial and performance reports, and allows the County to audit their company financial statements and files. (FAQ, p.8).

Is it possible that the RFP Section 5.6.6 financial transparency requirement will be depicted as strict for the purpose of reassuring citizens about the ongoing outsourcing process, in advance of negotiating the actual contract, but will be construed as loose for the purpose of actually selecting a contractor?

This is worrisome. There do seem to be — in the FAQ — at least two contradictory characterizations of the RFP Section 5.6.6 financial transparency requirement, one loose and one strict.

When it comes down to negotiating the actual contract, that requirement will have to be included or abandoned.

Which will it be?

To be part of the discussion and submit your own questions to the FAQ, send email to LibraryDiscussion@co.nevada.ca.us.

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