Under fire for contract irregularities, county manager resigns

Russell Smith, seen here in an earlier photo, resigned from the job of county manager effective May 1. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Dukes County manager Russell Smith has resigned, effective May 1. Mr. Smith announced his planned departure at a meeting of the seven elected Dukes County commissioners Wednesday night.

Mr. Smith said the decision was arrived at “by mutual agreement” in discussions with the county commissioners.”

Mr. Smith has come under fire most recently for irregularities in the award of a contract to replace and repair windows in the Dukes County Courthouse on Main Street in Edgartown. The county owns the courthouse and is responsible for its maintenance.

The missteps cost Mr. Smith, the county’s chief procurement officer, the support of a majority of the commissioners.

Mr. Smith discussed the bid issue in a telephone conversation before the February 8 meeting. “Admittedly, the paperwork was not stellar,” Mr. Smith told The Times. “However, at no point has there been any claim by anybody that there has been any wrongdoing or subversion of the public process.”

The first item on the agenda for yesterday’s meeting was “courthouse contract.”

Mr. Smith made his announcement during the portion of the meeting reserved for the manager’s report. He catalogued his accomplishments on the job and said, “I walk out of here with my head held high.”

Mr. Smith defended public servants in general and described public service as a thankless task.

“The vast majority of public servants are careful, thoughtful people,” he said. “But I don’t think the perception people have is good.”

The county commissioners thanked Mr. Smith for his work. “One of the things I think is very valuable is that we have talked a lot about accountability,” commissioner Melinda Loberg said. “There have been a lot of questions about the county and its competence. I think a lot of questions have abated, and a lot of that has been thanks to the efforts of Russell.”

Mr. Smith earned an annual salary of $63,532. He is now working under the terms of a six-month extension of his personal services contract, subject to evaluation of the position and his performance, by the commissioners. The contract is to expire May 1.

In April 2008, the commissioners ended an eight-month search process and hired Mr. Smith, a civil engineer and former Aquinnah selectman, as county manager.

Before his appointment, Mr. Smith held the paid position of legislative liaison to former state representative Eric Turkington, a job that paid him $34,000 annually.

Courthouse stumble

At the spring 2010 round of annual town meetings, the county asked the six Island towns to contribute Community Preservation Act funds to the county, to help fund the repair of windows in the 19th-century courthouse.

That contribution was on top of the assessment the towns pay annually to the county, an assessment that is not subject to approval at town meeting.

In December 2010, Mr. Smith issued a request for proposals (RFP) that included various possible levels of repair, from full replacement to less extensive repairs. One company, Campbell Construction of Peabody, submitted a bid of $117,420 by the February 18, 2011, deadline to repair and replace all 21 windows.

Mr. Smith approached Carleton Sprague, a contractor who acts as agent for Campbell Construction, and negotiated a lower bid for a reduced scope of work. The new bid, submitted one week after the February 18 deadline by Mr. Sprague, made no reference to Campbell. The new price was $55,000.

“We negotiated with the lowest bidder and in this case the only bidder,” Mr. Smith told The Times Wednesday.

Following inquiries by Tisbury about a discrepancy in the amount the town would contribute, on February 1 Mr. Smith and Ms. Loberg consulted with the office of the state Attorney General. They learned that the county had erred in the award of the contract.

According to a recap of that discussion, prepared by Ms. Loberg, Brian O’Donnell of the office of the Attorney General told the county that the window contract was not valid and should be declared void. It was not properly advertised, he said, and negotiations are not permitted with the low bidder once bids are accepted.

To date, seven of 21 windows have been repaired. The attorney general advised county officials to reissue a bid request for work on the remaining 14 windows.

“We had a very productive session with the attorney general’s office,” Ms. Loberg said. “They identified for us the steps that were mistakes and identified a process by which we could correct the problem. They were very supportive, very helpful. He said our mistakes were typical and made frequently. There was nothing illegal.”

Limited role

Although the county manager serves as the administrative manager for the seven county commissioners, the actual responsibilities of the job are limited.

The Martha’s Vineyard Airport, which by statute is under the control of the appointed airport commission and its professional airport manager, represents more than half of the county budget. State and federal regulations prohibit any use of airport revenue for non-airport related uses.

Last year, the sheriff’s office transferred operations from county to state control, as required by the legislature. The registry of deeds and the office of the county treasurer are county departments headed by elected county officials who do not answer to the county manager. Each has direct control over its employees.

In terms of day-to-day supervision and responsibilities, the county manager oversees three people in three departments, including his own office, veterans affairs, and integrated pest management.