Meeting Watch: County Board (5 Nov 2008)

Local vendor preferences, brownfield proposal on the agenda

The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners Wednesday night was chaired by Barbara Levin Bergman, who led the board crisply through an agenda that saw most of the items moved all in one go by commissioner Leah Gunn, and passed unanimously without discussion – with the exception of the affirmation for the second year of the 2008/2009 biennial budget. Commissioner Karen Lovejoy Roe did not support that affirmation.

Allied Building Service Company Contract

The main discussion of the evening came during the Ways and Means Committee meeting (which precedes every board meeting) on a item brought forward by Lovejoy Roe: a resolution to authorize country administrator Bob Guenzel to sign a two-year contract with Allied Building Service Company in the amount of $100,000 per year. Commissioner Mark Ouimet made an unsuccessful effort to have the resolution tabled, and it eventually failed on a 4-4 tie vote. [Yes: Gunn, Ouimet, Conan Smith, Bergman | No: Jessica Ping, Lovejoy Roe, Rolland Sizemore, Ken Schwartz]

The contract would have been for general construction services, including renovating, remodeling, and maintaining county facilities on an “as-needed” basis. For contracts up to $100,00, the county administrator is authorized to sign them, without any extra oversight by the commission. For contracts $100,000 and greater, there is a 7-day review process, in which commissioners are notified of the intent to sign a contract, at which point they can ask that the item be brought before the ways and means committee for a vote. In the case of the Allied Building contract, the 7-day review process was required, and Lovejoy Roe asked that it be brought forward.

The board’s discussion of the item was bookended by citizen participation, in which speakers on behalf of union workers asked that unions be included earlier and more meaningfully in the process of working out the details of the contract with Allied Building. They see the contract with an outside vendor as a way for the county to eliminate county worker jobs – jobs that are union positions. During her turn, Caryette Fenner, president of the AFSCME local 2733, talked about a 2-year pilot program that would affect as many as 14 positions. During the commissioner followup to citizen participation, Guenzel responded to these concerns by saying that outside contracting for these kinds of general services that exceeded the capacity of county staff had been a standard practice at the county for more than 30 years.

During the discussion by the commission, Sizemore asked Dave Shirley, operations and maintenance manager at facilities managment for the county, to step to the podium. “Why can’t you do these projects,” he asked Shirley. Shirley’s answer was that in some cases the projects require more bodies than he had available or equipment not owned by the county. Sizemore’s followup: “You can’t rent the equipment?” Shirley stressed that the contract provided a way to assist staff, not to replace them. Sizemore said that these projects should be bid out per job as opposed to lumped together into one general contract.

With respect to the bidding, corporation counsel Curtis Hedger clarifed that the contract being considered for Allied Building was put out for bid, with the two criteria being response times (especially in emergency situations) and rates. Commissioner Bergman pointed out that bidding out a general contract – as opposed to bidding out each job – represented an administrative cost savings both to the county and to the contractors.

Commissioner Schwartz wanted to know from Shirley how much was spent in 2007 and what the nature of the emergency work was that had been completed. Shirley did not have exact numbers, but offered to follow up with the figures. With respect to the emergency work, he said that it fell mostly into the category of electrical power outages. Shirley said that he could not recall any emergency work outside that category in the last few years. In response to Schwartz’s suggestion that the contract be revised to just one year (something that would apparently not require a re-bidding process), Hedger advised that there was a 30-day termination clause that the county could use, instead of tweaking the term of the contract.

Sizemore disagreed with Hedger’s assessment that the CUB agreement governing the contract amounted to the same thing as using union labor.

Lovejoy Roe, for her part, said during discussion by the commission that the reason she brought forward the item for consideration was not to protect union jobs at the county per se, but rather to protect local labor.

Local Vendor Preferences

Discussion of local labor was given its own agenda item. This item was introduced with a brief summary from Hedger, giving some background on the general issue of local vendor preferences from a legal point of view. He noted that Michigan state law already gives a preference to local labor, all other things being equal. However, he said, it’s extremely rare that all other things would be exactly equal, so that this law offered no practical benefit to local labor. Hedger said that fundamentally local vendor preferences amounted to apparent violations of either the equal protections or the privileges and immunities clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Based on his review of case law, he said that any local vendor preference would need to be crafted in way to make clear (i) what the reason or goal is for the preference and (ii) proof that the preference works to achieve its goal.

Commissioner Gunn expressed her concern that adopting a local vendor preference amounted to “opening a can of worms,” that had the potential of exposing the county to lawsuits. She also noted that local vendor preferences inherently represented a committment to spend more on contracts than necessary and that this was not in the long-term fiscal interests of the county.

Commissioner Smith talked about the fact that we have a regional economy, not just a local one. He said that impacts outside the county could have corresponding impacts inside the county and vice versa. Citing the example of a biomass-fueled boiler at the county jail, Smith concluded that awarding a contract to a company outside Washtenaw County could still have positive impact on the local economy of the county. Bergman cautioned that adopting local vendor preferences could lead to a situation of “You won’t contract with us? Well, then we won’t contract with you.”

Commissioner Ping brought a motion (seconded by Lovejoy Roe) to direct corporation counsel to draft language specifying a local vendor preference, but that motion failed.


As part of the approved new business, public hearing dates for three brownfield proposals in the city of Ann Arbor were set for Nov. 19: Maple Shoppes, 2800 Jackson (former site of the Michigan Inn), and 601. S. Forest.

In addition a public hearing was held during the Wednesday meeting on the brownfield plan for at the former site of the Ave Maria Law School in Ypsilanti. The only speaker at that hearing was’s Skip Carrier, who spoke enthusiastically about the growth that his company was experiencing, adding 34 employees over the last three years to bring their workforce to a total of 41. Carrier said he envisioned adding as many as 30 additional employees over the next three years, and up to 80 over the next five.

The brownfield plan is based on functional obsolescence and the presence of asbestos, and would require a $2.8 million investment for Carrier. Carrier said that they would not be adding to pollution (and thus another brownfield), because they relied on digital technology. Bergman jokingly asked if all the digits we were generating were winding up in a big pile somewhere, causing pollution.

Other public commentary

Tom Partridge spoke at three different points in the meeting, first saying, “I am here to persevere and to applaud those candidates who were successful.” Partridge ran unsuccessfully as a write-in candidate for the state representative seat in the 52nd district. To the discussion of local labor, Partridge added the perspective from his walk that evening from the People’s Food Co-op to the board meeting: he’d passed a homeless man who “was unemployed but employable.” Partridge also called on the board to invite David Nacht, who chairs the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, to make true county-wide transportation a reality.

Editorial aside: Bergman, who chaired the meeting in Jeff Irwin’s absence, announced that Irwin was at the hospital for the delivery of a new baby. A hearty Chronicle congratulations to Jeff and his wife.

Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn, Mark Ouimet, Jessica Ping, Karen Lovejoy Roe, Ken Schwartz, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith

Absent: Ronnie Peterson, Jeff Irwin, Mandy Grewal

Next meeting: Wednesday, Nov. 19 at 6:30 p.m. at the County Administration Building, 220 N. Main St. The Ways & Means Committee meets first, followed immediately by the regular board meeting. Public comment sessions are held at the beginning and end of each meeting.


  1. By Leah Gunn
    November 6, 2008 at 2:40 pm | permalink

    Jeff Irwin had an “excused absence” – he and his wife were at the hospital where she was having a baby! No news yet about the outcome.

  2. By Leah Gunn
    November 6, 2008 at 4:20 pm | permalink

    baby girl this AM for Jeff – all are well