How does Florida go from the gold standard in disaster response to creating a man-made disaster when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of major storms?
First, the state Division of Emergency Management (DEM) — the disaster response people — got caught changing the rules in a way that makes storm-ravaged cities across Florida wait … and wait … and wait to receive federal reimbursement for damages suffered in Hurricanes Hermine in 2016 and Matthew in 2017. The feds already approved the money, almost $118 million, but DEM reinterpreted some rules to force projects to go through a lengthy and questionable federal review before the funds are delivered. Media reports said this has resulted in a $3.6 billion backlog, at a time when some communities and their residents are still really hurting.
Then the agency set off a firestorm when POLITICO reported Tuesday that it refused to allow reporters into a meeting in which it tried to explain its approach to county emergency officials. What happened to transparency? It can’t be just a convenient option, particularly when there are real doubts about the efficacy of what the state is doing and how it is doing it.
And now a different state agency has issued an Invitation to Negotiate (ITN) for recovery services related to Hurricane Irma — which has raised some serious questions about whether an insider that helped draft the ITN put its thumb on the scale to apparently help a couple of its friends possibly have an unfair advantage and win the contract.
The ITN is to provide the state with program and contract administration services, to make sure disaster recovery funds are being used properly. The ITN was issued by the Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees Florida’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program.
Those who have reviewed the procurement have wondered about curious language on a form attached to the ITN that suggests the winning vendor must have had a similar contract for at least 5 continuous years — a longer requirement than most contracts, which seems to limit the field of who could qualify. It seems the ITN also uses a specific term used by only one or two vendors in describing a particular inspection requirement — again making you wonder whether they had someone already in mind when writing the ITN.
Where’s the level playing field in this important contract process?
When it comes to these huge piles of tax dollars, the government must be transparent if it hopes to instill confidence in the public. When it changes the rules in relative obscurity to make life harder for local governments, when it slams the door on media trying to keep the taxpayers informed, and when it issues high-dollar contract proposals filled with ambiguity and doubt — this is a formula for favoritism, not for fostering public confidence.
Florida’s relentless 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, when no fewer than eight named storms pummeled the state, made a hero out of the Division of Emergency Management for doing so much so right.
Government’s first responsibility is to protect public safety. Properly handling disaster preparation and response can make or break a governor’s or agency’s profile and legacy. It’s why Gov. Jeb Bush is fondly remembered as the “Master of Disaster.”
But mishandling the aftermath — including recovery and contracting related to it — is the preventable disaster after the disaster. Ignoring the need to address this dubious contracting issue is a Category 4-5 storm of controversy.