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[March 18, 2014]
Councilman may take Brown to court over PR contract [The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) :: ]
(Morning Call (Allentown, PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 19--Northampton County Councilman Lamont McClure, making good on previous threats, will ask council to back him in filing a lawsuit against Executive John Brown for allegedly violating county code.
McClure previously raised the specter of legal action in appealing to Brown to withdraw an $84,000 contract for public relations services with Sahl Communications. He plans to introduce a resolution to council Thursday authorizing the solicitor to file suit.
The councilman claims that Brown's methods of procuring the contract violate a county code regulating how services should be purchased.
Brown in February inked the deal with Sahl Communications. In doing so, he also issued an executive order authorizing the contract, which was not put out for bid.
Brown relied on noncompetitive negotiation, which is allowed when the services aren't considered professional. But in that case, the executive's order must include specific reasons for using noncompetitive negotiation, council solicitor Phil Lauer has said, and Brown didn't meet that requirement.
McClure also asserts public relations is a professional service as defined by the administrative code, requiring the executive to seek multiple offers. And it's council's responsibility, he added, to enforce the provisions of the administrative code.
"I think if council wants to abdicate its responsibility to make sure the administrative code is enforced, it'll vote against [the resolution]," McClure said. "If council wants to do its duty, it will vote to approve the resolution." Council and former Executive John Stoffa previously parsed the term "professional service" in a lawsuit over an ambulance service contract. County Judge Leonard Zito ruled that the ambulance contract provided a professional service, which under county rules bars the contract from being awarded through the process Stoffa selected.
Brown said he's confident his office's handling of the contract complies with the administrative code, a position he said is bolstered by previous administrations' actions. Cherry picking this one contract would be wrong, he added.
"What council decides to do, that's up to them," Brown said. "Whatever Mr. McClure thinks is appropriate, that's for himself and council to decide." Council can't wait much longer to act, McClure said. The county cut a $7,000 check to Sahl last week.
McClure said he hopes the county can avoid court and that Brown will agree to competitively bid the contract.
"I don't think anybody is benefited by having this decided by a court," he said. "But if a compromise can't be reached, then we'll go to court." An earlier resolution for council to repeal the contract is still awaiting a vote. McClure also introduced that measure, which council voted 5-4 along party lines to table. It, too, will come up for a vote Thursday.
Under the contract, Sahl Communications will provide strategic planning and support for media relations, internal communications and public relations strategies for the county, Brown has said.
Sahl Communications President Kim Plyler hosted a news conference for Brown last month and coordinated media at his State of the County address last week.
Council previously torpedoed a consultant contract Brown proposed to modernize the county's financial systems. Brown described the $715,000, four-year contract as one of his innovative solutions needed to restore "fiscal sanity" and cope with years of flat revenues, skyrocketing health-care and benefits costs, failing infrastructure and dwindling reserve funds.
Brown also entered into a three-month, $24,000 deal with Allentown-based Integrity Personnel for a strategic assessment of the structure, work flow, policies and practices of the county's workforce.
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