Charlotte Selectboard avoids legal action in tree service controversy, low bidder withdraws

SCOOTER MACMILLAN
Staff Writer

A contentious and possibly expensive legal issue was averted when the lowest bidder for a contract withdrew his bid at Wednesday’s special meeting of the Charlotte Selectboard.

At least 50 people crowded into the Charlotte Town Hall for the special meeting of the Charlotte Selectboard, called to get public input and discuss improving the bidding process.

The meeting was called in response to an outcry over the awarding of the contract for the removal of ash trees along a quarter of mile of Lake Road from Thompson’s Point Road to Sentinel Cedar Lane.

The contract was awarded to Chris’s Lawncare & Mini Excavating for a bid of $10,000 at the April 22 selectboard meeting, even though Chris’s was not the lowest bid.

The parking lot at town hall was filled and legitimate parking places were gone almost 10 minutes before the meeting started Wednesday night. Extra folding chairs were bought in to accommodate the audience that just fit into the meeting space.

Many of those in attendance and those who’d responded on social media were upset that the contract didn’t go Teacher’s Tree Service, which bid the job for $25 less and committed to complete the job in half the time (five days instead of the “10 or less” that Chris’s Lawncare said in their bid that the job would take them).

Selectboard chair Matthew Krasnow started by saying that he was glad to see that a lot of people had come to the special meeting.

“I wish every selectboard meeting could be this well attended,” he said.

Getting public input quickly

Krasnow said the special meeting was scheduled as soon as possible following the April 22 meeting when it became clear that citizens wanted a chance to talk to the selectboard about the bid award issue.

Besides the time allotted for public input, the only other item on the agenda for the Wednesday’s meeting was discussion of the town’s contractual obligation, which would likely have required having the board go into a closed executive session to discuss legal issues.

“If people in town want the selectboard to consider the contractual obligation that was made or reconsider it in any way, the town has asked general counsel to make an opinion, which would require executive session to discuss,” Krasnow said. “Given where we are today, not on April 22, what is in the best financial interests of the town, given where we are contractually?”

“Yes,” he added. “It was a mistake.”

Teacher’s withdraws bid

But before a discussion and executive session to consider the legal ramifications of rescinding the bid to Chris’s Lawncare, Greg Ranallo of Teacher’s Tree Service said, “I don’t want the town to go through any legal mumbo jumbo, so I’ll withdraw my bid, and Chris can take care of this contract.”

Ranallo’s action negated any need for an executive session to consider legal issues about the contractual obligation to Chris’s Lawncare.

In a post on Front Porch Forum, Ranallo had written after the earlier selectboard meeting, “I feel all contracts should now be scrutinized for favoritism. And, if a higher bid is accepted over a lower bid, a clear explanation should be given.”

At the April 22 meeting, Carrie Spear made the motion to award the bid to Chris’s Lawncare. She, Frank Tenney and Louise MacCarren voted in favor of his motion.

Krasnow said that he voted against Spear’s motion because he was taking the recommendations for Teacher’s Tree Service from Charlotte Tree Warden Mark Dillenbeck and Burlington City Arborist VJ Comai.

The vote to award the contract to Chris’s Lawncare and Mini Excavating was 3-1 with Krasnow voting against it and Fritz Legatz recusing himself because of a conflict of interest. At the meeting Wednesday, Legatz said that Teacher’s Tree Service was doing some work on his farm.

“And I expect him to be there in the morning,” he said.

Spear had written a statement, which she read when there was an outcry from an audience member who demanded that she do so because having it passed out was like being “given homework.”

Spear’s statement

“I have no personal relationship with either of the two low bidders,” Spear’s statement read. “I am generally aware that Mr. and Mrs. Fortin are lifetime residents of Charlotte who have lived, worked, and raised a family in the Lake Road neighborhood near the ash tree removal site.”

Resident Margaret Foster wanted more information on Spear’s decision-making process.

“How did you make your decision to vote for the proposal after you already heard the qualifications of Teacher’s Tree Service?” Foster asked.

Foster said that Tenney had responded to an email from her saying that he “had always looked to small local businesses to fulfill the needs of the town. The difference between the bids’ amount was minimal.”

McCarren agreed.

“The fact that Fortin’s [Chris’s Lawncare] was a local business swayed my vote,” she said.

Ranallo said that the contract wasn’t the most important thing to him, that the process by which it was awarded was.

“I’ve bid on 11 government contracts this winter and none of them have considered any company that is not a full-blown tree care company because of our insurance, training and expertise,” Ranallo said. “I got half the jobs that I bid on this winter and I don’t have any problem with the ones I didn’t get.”

He said that his insurance costs were “in six figures,” that all of his crew is formally trained and that he had the equipment needed, such as a bucket truck, that so that trees can be cut down without breaking other trees. This is part of the reason that he could finish the project in five days.

“I’ve got to take offense at your reasoning for why you awarded this contract: That it’s the guy you know,” he said. “It’s not the local, small business because I’m a local, small business.”

Krasnow said that since the vote on April 22, the selectboard has committed itself to improving the bidding process. After July 1, the board will start the process of awarding another contract for the removal of ash trees in anticipation of the coming infestation of the emerald ash borer and that RFP (request for proposals) will look very different.

“I can almost guarantee that the criteria for awarding that bid, that contract, will look different than the April 22 process,” said Krasnow.

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