Payment for Christmas decorations must change in Edgartown

Seasonally exquisite, but there's a question about state law's procurement requirements.
File photo by Susan Safford

Seasonally exquisite, but there's a question about state law's procurement requirements.

The volunteer committee that oversees public holiday decorations in Edgartown has awarded contracts to local business owners without following strict procurement laws designed to make sure the town gets the lowest price and that everyone has an equal opportunity to bid on the services.

One of the contractors is Donaroma’s Nursery and Landscaping, whose owner, Michael Donaroma, is chairman of the Edgartown selectmen. Mr. Donaroma’s landscaping staff was out and about this week spreading Christmas cheer and decorations downtown.

But state ethics laws, which do not include exceptions for the unique spirit of the season, prohibit a selectman from having a direct or indirect financial interest in any contract awarded by a town agency.

Mr. Donaroma said his work for the town is not a conflict of interest.

“I’ve been doing Christmas decorations probably for over 20 years, and probably still at the same price, since long before I was a selectman,” Mr. Donaroma said. “We look at it as below cost.”

Mr. Donaroma said questions about the contract are a case of “no good deed going unpunished.” He said he can’t operate by trying to make a few of his detractors happy.

“I’m always open to somebody else taking over,” Mr. Donaroma said. “Some people are never going to be happy.”

The decorating committee and town officials say they will examine the spending next year and ensure that all regulations are followed.

“We do the same thing we’ve always done,” committee member Gail Avakian said. “If we goofed, we goofed. We’ll make it a different process next year.”

Last year, the town paid Mr. Donaroma’s company $9,834 to supply greens, lights, and labor for the Christmas decorations along Main Street. The town paid electrician Thomas Bassett $15,375 for electrical work. Hagerty Tree Service, which supplied bucket trucks, was paid $1,000, and NSTAR was paid $605 for the cost of the electricity. Similar amounts were budgeted this year.

In general, Massachusetts laws require that the procurement of goods and services worth more than $5,000 but less than $25,000 does not have to be advertised, but the town must get three written or oral price quotes and award the work to the lowest bidder. A written contract is required.

Jen O’Hanlon, appointed as the town’s procurement officer a few months ago, said the town will take a thorough look at the expenditures.

“There’s nothing we can remedy this year,” Ms. O’Hanlon said. “We want to do everything legally and give the town the opportunity to get the best price. There are a lot of people in this economy who need the work: we understand that.”

“This committee has been working together for over 35 years and have always worked with the same people,” town administrator Pam Dolby said in an email statement. “They meet once a year and do a good job for the town. They understand they have had an oversight and they have already discussed it with the procurement person to correct it for next year.”