Government & Politics

IT company challenges integrity of Essex Junction bid process

Lincoln Hall, home of the Essex Junction municipal offices. City officials selected the highest bid among three finalists for an upcoming IT project, and it came from a company the city had already worked with in the past. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A South Burlington information technology company has filed a complaint with Essex Junction city officials, charging that administrators there violated a city policy when selecting the winning bid for an upcoming IT project.

IT consultant Brett Johnson of simpleroute. Courtesy photo

The Essex Junction City Council will meet April 3 to review the process by which city staff awarded that bid. Brett Johnson, president of the South Burlington firm simpleroute, requested the hearing in a letter to the council’s president Thursday.

City Manager Regina Mahony has said the city government did not violate policy when it chose a more expensive proposal from Open Approach, a firm in Burlington.

Simpleroute was one of three finalists for the Essex Junction project, which includes setting up dedicated IT infrastructure for the city, now that it is no longer a village within Essex Town. The town plans to stop providing IT for the new city at the end of June.

Open Approach’s bid had the highest price tag of all the finalists, according to a memo Mahony sent to councilors earlier this month. She said the cost was presented as a “worst-case scenario” and could be adjusted after the bid had been awarded.

Johnson disputed that justification in an interview and said it is “very unusual” for a municipality to go with the highest bidder. He also pointed to the city’s purchasing policy, which states that the policy’s purpose is to “obtain the highest quality goods and services … at the lowest possible price.”

In his letter to City Council President Andrew Brown, Johnson also cited a comment that he heard Mahony make that undermined his confidence in the bidding process. 

According to Johnson, Mahony said “she didn’t see why the (bid) process was necessary” because Essex Junction had already worked with an IT firm — which, according to city documents, is Open Approach — on a water department project.

“Both our Director of Business Development and I were concerned by the comment,” he wrote. “As a firm responding to the (request for proposals), the award feels like a foregone conclusion.”

Scott Bernoudy, Open Approach’s CEO, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Mahony wrote in a response to Johnson earlier this month that the city’s purchasing policy did not bar staff members from selecting the highest bid. She said that, in the city's request for proposals, price was listed as one — but not the only — factor that would be used to choose the winning bid. Other factors included a bidder’s experience, the expertise of its staff and its approach to the project.

“With all criteria considered Open Approach had the highest total score; and ranked highest among the majority of the review committee members,” Mahony wrote.

Both Mahony and Brown declined to comment on the bid process ahead of the council meeting next week.

According to figures shared by Johnson, simpleroute’s bid estimated it would cost between about $20,000 and $40,000 to separate the city’s IT infrastructure from the town’s, along with roughly $110,000 in annual fees for IT services. 

The city posted a copy of Open Approach’s proposal on its website, though according to the letter that Mahony wrote to Johnson, the copy includes only “non-confidential” information. It does not include the estimated costs of the firm’s services, and Johnson said he did not know the difference in costs between the two firms’ proposals.

Ashley Snellenberger, the city’s communications and strategic initiatives director, declined to provide cost figures for the Open Approach bid when reached Friday.

Johnson noted that one of the main reasons Essex Junction residents voted to separate from Essex Town was to lower their taxes (previously, residents paid for a number of duplicated municipal services). He said, therefore, he’d expect locals to be concerned that the newly independent city had selected the highest of three bids for a project.

“I think there's a lot of scrutiny over the expenses being spent at this time,” he said.

The April 3 meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at 2 Lincoln St. in Essex Junction.

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Shaun Robinson

About Shaun

Shaun Robinson is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Franklin and Grand Isle counties. He is a journalism graduate of Boston University, with a minor in political science. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the Cape Cod Times.


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