By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A Havre attorney retained his position as the city's public defender in a process that one City Council member and another candidate for the job called unfair.
The Havre City Council on Monday accepted its Finance Committee's recommendation and approved Jim Spangelo's bid of $17,000 over Havre attorney Randy Randolph's bid of $17,500. Spangelo has been the public defender for about 20 years.
Spangelo had initially submitted a proposal that was higher than Randolph's, before the Finance Committee decided to put the job out for bids.
At a Finance Committee meeting on June 2, Spangelo submitted a proposal of $20,475, a 5 percent increase from his fee of about $19,000 for the current fiscal year. He handled about 82 cases as public defender this year.
Randolph submitted an unsolicited bid to the city of $17,500.
City clerk Lowell Swenson told the committee that night that it didn't have to consider Randolph's proposal.
The city is not legally required to put the public defender's job out for bids, he said. Rather than do so, he said, the Finance Committee has had an agreement that Spangelo would be kept in the job as long as his services are deemed satisfactory.
"A few years ago the Finance Committee said they would negotiate with Spangelo as long as they were happy with that," Swenson told the committee.
But community member Charlie Grant noted the $3,000 difference between the proposals.
"I'm a taxpayer and that's my money," Grant said. "Go for the cheaper lawyer."
The committee reconsidered.
"Maybe we should put it out on bid," committee member Gary Schubert said.
The City Council agreed and advertised the position in the Havre Daily News.
The Finance Committee opened the bids Monday night. The same two attorneys had bid, but this time Spangelo's proposal was $17,000 while Randolph's was still $17,500.
The committee voted 3-1 to accept Spangelo's bid, with committee member Emily Mayer voting no.
After the vote, Cindy Bailey, a paralegal for the Randolph law firm, spoke to the committee.
"My problem with this is that Spangelo knew what the bid was and he dropped $500" below Randolph's bid, Bailey said.
Committee member Rick Pierson said there was nothing to prevent either of the candidates from finding out the proposals, which were discussed publically at the June 2 Finance Committee meeting. Because the proposals were not technically bids, they did not have to be kept secret, he added.
"Anything that's in these meetings is public," Pierson said. "It was not a bid. These were proposals."
Mayer said her vote had nothing to do with the quality of Spangelo's work.
"It's just a fairness issue," Mayer said. "It's like Cindy (Bailey) said. Jim knew what Randy's bid was going to be. I guess we'll just do it different next time."
Later on Monday night, the City Council adopted the committee's recommendation to accept Spangelo's bid. Mayer again voted no.
Spangelo was paid about $250 per case as public defender. The bid for next fiscal year means that price will drop to about $189 per case, a decrease of about 15 percent.
Randolph said this morning he thinks the city's process was unfair.
"I'm kind of disappointed in the way the city went about the whole matter," he said. "Those bids should have been sealed."
Randolph added that he inquired last month into bidding for the city attorney position. He said he was told he could send a letter informing the city that he was interested in bidding for the position, but that the city usually negotiates with the firm of Bosch Kuhr Dudgel Martin & Kaze every year for the position.
"I felt that I could save them some money," Randolph said, adding that the city never responded to his letter.
Spangelo declined to comment this morning.
Swenson said Spangelo proposed a negotiation process to the Finance Committee two or three years ago to replace the bidding process.
"For a number of years they were receiving just one bid from Spangelo," Swenson said, "so he asked if rather than going through the cost (of advertising for bids) they would just agree to negotiate for the services, and they agreed to that."
Last year, he said, an unsolicited bid from Randolph came in higher than Spangelo's proposal.
"They just went ahead and negotiated with Spangelo like they'd agreed to do," Swenson said.
Alec Hansen, executive director of Montana League of Cities and Towns, said agreements to negotiate with the same attorney from year to year are legal, and not unusual for Montana cities.
"I'm not aware of any cities that have competitive bidding for legal services," Hansen said. He added that there is a specific provision in Montana law that exempts cities from bidding requirements for professional and technical people like engineers, architects and attorneys.
"The Legislature and people that make the laws realize that when hiring an attorney, there are other things that come into account other than price," he said.