Why would a county commissioner care so much about the food supplied to the jail and juvenile justice center that he would personally lobby for one company to get the contracts? That's the overarching question today as Vindicator reporters continue to probe the $159,000 worth of food service contracts that Acme Steak Co. Inc. of Youngstown received from Trumbull County.
Acme had never done business with the county until Commissioner James Tsagaris and purchasing agent Tony Carson pitched the company to the county jail and the juvenile justice center. Tsagaris and Carson contended that the prices Acme was willing to charge were lower than what the county had been paying.
But since no competitive bids were sought for the food service contracts, we wonder how the two officials concluded that Trumbull County was getting the best deal. We also wonder who made the decision that bidding was not required. Was Tsagaris acting on his own, or did he consult with his colleagues, Michael O'Brien and Joseph Angelo?
There's a smell emanating from this issue -- and it isn't the mouth-watering kind.
While Sheriff Thomas Altiere, who is responsible for the jail, says he did not conduct a comparative study of food prices, he says that money has been saved since Acme was given the contract. The per inmate-meal price has dropped from between 85 and 90 cents to between 70 and 75 cents.
On the other hand, Judge Pamela Rintala of the juvenile court said that her employees found mistakes on the list circulated by Tsagaris and Carson comparing Acme's prices to those of other suppliers.
"Some of the prices looked better, but when you looked at the product, the size was smaller or the counts were different," the judge said.
The juvenile court used Acme's price list to negotiate better deals from its usual suppliers.
Which brings us to the issue of competitive bidding. The Trumbull County Prosecutor's Office, the lawyer for all county departments, has a standing rule: Any contracts worth more than $15,000 a year must go out for competitive bid. That rule, according to James Misocky, first assistant prosecutor and attorney for the commissioners, was shared with Tsagaris, O'Brien and Angelo.
But O'Brien recalls that several years ago Misocky informed him that bidding for food services was not necessary. Indeed, the commissioner says that for a long time, food purchases at the jail were divided among five vendors.
"I've always been in favor of bidding food service out, but it never was," O'Brien told The Vindicator.
If commissioners and other county officeholders want a reason to make competitive bidding standard operating procedure, consider Judge Rintala's explanation for the juvenile court's not going with Acme: "... when you looked at the product, the size was smaller or the counts were different."
In other words, there were no official specifications that would have a enabled an apples-to-apples comparison. That's the advantage of bidding. Everyone must first meet the specifications before the "lowest and best" standard is applied.
The free-wheeling style of governing, as illustrated by the Acme Steak Co. Inc.'s contracts, must end now.