Few details as Water Board vets executive director candidates

The full Niagara Falls Water Board met in a closed-door executive session Tuesday night to conduct interviews with an undisclosed number of candidates to fill the agency’s vacant executive director position.

The quest for a new executive director has been largely shrouded in secrecy since the board acted, at a special meeting in January, to hire an employment search firm without conducting competitive bidding for the contract. 

The board has not disclosed how many candidates the search firm has reviewed for the executive director’s post nor how many have been selected for interviews. The names of the candidates and other professional information about them has also not been released to either the news media or the public.

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, the board exited its executive session and indicated that it will conduct “at least” one more special meeting for candidate interviews. That meeting is also expected to be conducted in a closed-door executive session.

The hiring of the employment search firm that is assisting the board prompted criticism from the government transparency group New York Coalition for Open Government.

In a letter to the board’s acting executive director and general counsel, Sean Costello, the coalition charged that the agency appeared to have violated its own procurement rules by not conducting competitive bidding for a contract that could net the firm, Selective Staffing Solutions, a fee of $24,000 or more.

The coalition questioned the need for the board to awarded the contract at a special meeting on Jan. 25, rather than wait for its regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 8. A notice for the special meeting was also posted just three days prior to the meeting.

The meeting took place one day before the Water Board’s then chairman, Patrick Brown, resigned.

The coalition letter, while raising the issue of the timing of the meeting, also noted that the Water Board’s Procurement Policy and Procedures contain specific requirements for entering into contracts like the one with Selective Staffing. The firm, which is based in Williamsville, advertises itself as a “WBE certified Woman-Owned Business” and charges a fee of 20 percent of a successful candidate’s first year’s salary.

The board’s most recent executive director was paid $120,000 a year.

The board’s procurement policy specifically states that “An effective way to award contracts for professional services is to solicit requests for proposals (“RFP”). This ensures that qualified firms are given the opportunity to submit proposals and can result in reduced costs as a result of competition.”

The policy also provides that, “Except as provided below, a formal RFP or where more appropriate a request for qualifications (“RFQ”) shall be required prior to the award of any agreement for professional services requiring the expenditure of Water Board funds over $10,001.”

According to minutes of the special meeting, posted to the Water Board’s website, Board Members Renae Kimble, Gretchen Leffler and Nick Forester all raised concerns over the lack of a bidding process for the contract.

The board’s procurement practices also require that when “approval of a professional services agreement is requested without a prior RFP or RFQ, the proposed resolution for the award shall state (1) the reasons why a formal RFP or RFQ was not issued; (2) which firms informally were solicited for proposals; and (3) why the procurement should not be postponed to permit compliance.”

The resolution authorizing the hiring of Selective Staffing did not appear to contain such an explanation. The board meeting minutes reflect that Costello told the board members the apparent violations of the procurement rules was “time reasons.”

The minutes also reflect that Brown pushed the board to approve the contract.

“Mr. Brown wished to add that all board members know the situation the board is in and that it is important to maintain the stability of the organization to get an executive director professional recruited,” the official meeting minutes read. “He does not see an RFP as accomplishing anything other than wasting time that in his opinion the board does not have.”

The awarding of the contract was also promoted by Board Member Colleen Larkin. According to the meeting minutes, Larkin is “familiar” with the firm.

“Mr. Costello states that Ms. Larkin was familiar with Selective Staffing Solutions LLC after some investigation she had done and had suggested that he contact the firm,” the minutes reflect.

Those comments raised a red flag for the Open Government Coalition.

“The New York Coalition For Open Government has great concerns regarding a public agency spending funds on a contractor recommended by a board member that may not have been competitively solicited,” the coalitions president, Paul Wolf, wrote to the Water Board.

The board voted 4-1, with Kimble opposed, to approve the contract.

The need for a new executive director stems from the resignation, in December, of Patrick Fama.

Fama who had become the executive director in a staff shake-up in March 2019, had taken a leave of absence in July for what was described at the time as “a (Family Medical Leave Act) covered issue.” He had returned to work in early September.

In a short letter, addressed to water board members, Fama noted that they had agreed to allow him to take a leave of absence from his civil service position, as a lab technician and microbiologist with the board, in return for taking the post of executive director.

“For personal reasons, I would like to resign as executive director,” Fama wrote, “and return to my prior position of lab technician and provisionally to be appointed microbiologist.”

Fama conditioned his resignation on the board approving his return to his former job. The board approved Fama’s request unanimously.

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