Former Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson’s name was never mentioned this week during a city council discussion about efforts to improve government transparency and avoid potential conflicts of interest. But the actions that the city took under her administration were at the center of the council’s move to address citizens’ concerns regarding both issues.
Council members voted unanimously on Tuesday, Oct. 11, to approve an ordinance that amends the city’s procurement procedures and enacts other changes to ensure that its purchases are conducted in an “open and competitive” manner. In addition, the ordinance aims to establish standards of conduct for city employees and officials, while avoiding potential conflicts of interest in the city’s procurement process.
“We’ve got some pretty good ethics provisions that I think will be beneficial and lend some transparency to our purchasing process,” Moab City Attorney Chris McAnany told the council.
Concerns about the issues first arose in late 2015, after the city contracted a computer technology and consulting firm with ties to Davidson, in order to resolve what Moab City Recorder Rachel Stenta identified as major computer security flaws.
At the former city manager’s recommendation, Stenta hired Tayo, Inc., which lists Davidson’s then-housemate as its registered agent. Another one of Davidson’s past business associates did the bulk of the consulting work for the city on a short-term emergency basis. Altogether, the city spent about $99,000 on hardware and software, plus more than $56,000 on consulting services.
Social media commenters and others soon began to raise allegations of cronyism and conflicts of interest, claiming among other things that any profits that Tayo, Inc., gained could increase Davidson’s household income.
An independent accountant that conducted a “very limited review” of the issue subsequently cleared the city of any procedural wrongdoing in that decision. But that firm’s report did little to quell the concerns that some critics voiced in the weeks and months before the accountant released its report.
Davidson, along with her then-housemate and Tayo, Inc., responded by suing five of those critics and the Canyon Country Zephyr newspaper, “demanding” a jury trial in 7th District Court to determine “reasonable” punitive and general damages against them. As of earlier this week, no trial date had been set.
They filed the suit after Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison placed Davidson on paid administrative leave in September, pending an outside legal counsel’s review of unspecified “internal issues.” Seventeen days later, on Friday, Sept. 30, the city council voted 3-1 to terminate Davidson’s three-year contract “without cause,” or for reasons that are not related to misconduct.
Jones says public feedback was “well-considered”
Moab City Council member Kalen Jones said that public feedback on the revised ordinance was “well-considered,” noting that a number of suggestions were incorporated into the final proposal that the city adopted.
“I’ve read through this ordinance probably a dozen times, and … I feel like I know it pretty well by now,” he added. “I think with an ordinance like this, we’re trying to balance accountability with staff, and our oversight with (the) latitude they need to do their job in an efficient and timely manner.”
Going forward, city officials will be required to report emergency purchases – such as repairs to broken water or sewer lines – within 30 days, at most.
“In practice, I expect you’ll hear about it at the next council meeting,” McAnany told council members. “In one of the administrative reports, (someone might say), ‘Hey, we had a water line and it broke, and you’ll be seeing a bill for it.”
Once an emergency is over, he said, the city will go back to its normal procurement process.
McAnany said similar ordinances that other municipalities have enacted vary from “extremely rudimentary” to “very detailed,” adding that Moab’s amendments fall into the latter category.
“I’d say this is probably on the more detailed end of the spectrum for cities of this size,” he said.
As city officials worked on the changes, he said, they tried to avoid vague wording, and they made an effort to clearly define certain types of relationships. For instance, if a person is doing business with the city and has a relationship with a city employee or offical, she or he must disclose the relationship.
While questions about Davidson’s relationship with Tayo, Inc., gained widespread local attention this year, it was not the first time that the issue of potential conflicts of interest came up at city hall.
Stenta has noted that up until 2015 and under Davidson’s predecessor, former Moab City Manager Donna Metzler’s husband Mike Baird worked as the city’s information technology consultant for 16 years. During that time, Stenta said, the city never went through a competitive bidding process – even though other IT consultants were available in the community.
In June, Stenta told the council that under Metzler, the city did not have any formal standards regarding the acceptable uses of IT. Since nothing was spelled out in the city’s policy, she said, it was using outdated hardware, unsupported operating systems and unlicensed – or “pirated” – software – one of the justifications for the emergency expenditures on Tayo’s services.
The city also went ahead with the emergency expenditures because none of its computers previously required a password, so users could download anything, from any site on the internet, she said at the time. Unregulated wi-fi access at city hall also meant that visitors could “abuse” the network and compromise the city’s system, she said, because no proper safeguards were in place.
The city’s computers stored more than 27,000 credit card numbers, and hackers could have gained access to those numbers, as well as the cardholders’ names and addresses, she said in June.
According to Stenta, the previous IT consultant had remote access to the city’s system. But his access was not secure, she said, so anyone could have hacked into the city’s computers.
City contracts with new firm for IT services
The city’s new contract for computer consulting services will not be going to Mike Baird’s company, or to Tayo, Inc., for that matter.
At its Oct. 11 meeting, the council voted 4-1 to approve a contract with ProVelocity of Grand Junction, Colorado, for cyber security and IT support; Heila Ershadi voted against the majority.
The contract averages $65,745 for the remainder of the current fiscal year that runs from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017, or $87,660 for a 12-month period. That’s well below a previous estimate that the city would need to budget $106,000 per year for a full-time, in-house IT position, according to a summary that Stenta prepared.
Ershadi acknowledged the “hard work” that a selection committee put into the competitive bidding process, and she recognized ProVelocity for its “professional integrity.”
“However, I have concerns about the past and current handling of IT at Moab City,” Ershadi said.
According to Stenta, the city prepared the contract proposal in July, and subsequently received five bids. A selection committee reviewed each of them, narrowing their choices down to two contractors.
“We had a lot of good people spending a lot of hours and attention going through the proposals, and a lot of good questions for the contractors,” Stenta said.
Reference checks set ProVelocity apart from its remaining competitor, she said, as did the company’s commitment to prompt response times.
“We needed to have a contractor that could respond on very short notice, be on site on short notice and then also provide a 24/7, 365 service callout for us, so that when the public safety department experiences an issue at two in the morning, or on a holiday weekend, we have a contractor that can step up and bring us back online,” she said.
Although his company is based in Grand Junction, ProVelocity Manager Jon Labrum said it takes a different approach to working in other communities.
“A lot of people will do remote support to outlying areas, (but) we think it’s really important to be in front of the users to help with little questions or problems that might come up,” he said.
Under its agreement with the city, he said, ProVelocity’s employee will be based in Moab.
“Our goal is that you’ll consider them almost a part of your staff,” Labrum said.
Officials say revised ordinance addresses citizens’ concerns about potential conflicts
We’ve got some pretty good ethics provisions that I think will be beneficial and lend some transparency to our purchasing process.