Honolulu Hale does not have a standard written policy on how to pick contractors for millions of dollars worth of government consulting jobs. The city is also just now beginning to actively oversee the process by which those consultants are picked.

“I’ve been with Purchasing for five-and-a-half years, and my goal has been to document procedures,” said Purchasing Division Administrator Wendy Imamura. “As you can imagine, that is not my core competency nor is it the core competency of my staff. This is something that’s done on as-available time, and so it’s a very long, painful process and we’ve made many, many great strides already.”

The city’s procurement practices are under the microscope thanks to the recent snafu over the Fire-EMS merger study.

The Honolulu Fire Department case highlighted problems created by the complexity and ambiguity of state procurement law. The lack of written guidance from the city didn’t help. HFD apparently misapplied city policy on its way to awarding a $175,000 consulting gig to a company that ranked second in the initial round of evaluations, saying there was a tie when there was not and saying the fire chief could break that tie unilaterally when he could not.

The ensuing last-minute scoring change and the connections between the winning bidder and HFD leadership are the focus of a Honolulu Ethics Commission investigation. Meantime, debate over the merger has taken on a decidedly politicized tone in an election year.

Even before the latest blow-up, Imamura and the rest of her team were working whenever they could find a spare minute to put longstanding city policies down on paper. They’re also starting to actively supervise a wider range of agency procurement decisions and provide guidance to a city government hungry for supplies and services only available from private-sector partners.

Next on the to-do list are professional services contracts and requests for qualifications — the issues that landed the Fire Department in hot water.

“I recognize the importance of having policies and procedures so that the new buyers that come in can just look at a book and say, ‘OK, this is what I’m supposed to do’ instead of us trying to remember to teach the new buyers all of these things,” Imamura said in an interview at Honolulu Hale last week.

“We’re working to standardize templates, we’re updating terms and conditions that haven’t been updated since the ’90s. These are all things that need to be done, and we need to prioritize which ones are the most important to get done first,” she said. “It just so happens that professional services hit the list just a few months ago.”

One of the key issues in the Fire Department merger contract award is whether the three-member procurement panel should have aggregated its raw scores for the four bidders or given those bidders individual ranks and then added up the ranks. The Purchasing Division said the first method, known as aggregate scoring, should be used. The Fire Department believed it should use the second method, known as ordinal scoring.

But even when a department put it in writing, it didn’t help.

The Department of Design and Construction, which does the most professional services contracting, gave Civil Beat its standard operating procedures this week. They include a description of a scoring format that instructs evaluation committees to use “the sum of the ordinal scores, not the individual raw scores” for final rankings. But Imamura and DDC Director Lori Kahikina said that’s not the preferred way to do things — it’s just one option.

The Fire Department score sheets provided to Civil Beat previously mirror the template in the Department of Design and Construction’s guidelines.

Speaking generally and in hypotheticals to avoid interfering with the Ethics Commission investigation, Imamura said her division takes its responsibilities under the law seriously and works hard to make sure things are handled appropriately.

The Hawaii Revised Statutes and Hawaii Administrative Rules provide the key official guidance on how things are supposed to work.

HRS Section 103D-304(e) lays out the criteria that must be weighed in determining who’s qualified to get a contract: relevant experience and professional qualifications; past performance on similar projects; capacity to finish the job on time; and anything else a three-member selection committee comes up with.

Title III Chapter 122 of the Hawaii Administrative Rules is more fuel for the fire, but sheds little light when it comes to specific questions about, for example, aggregate versus ordinal scoring.

Imamura said the division complies with the law, but the law lacks specificity. The city’s internal purchasing procedures fill in the gaps after that, and those are being captured in writing now.

“We have been prioritizing improvements to the process based on different types of procurement,” Imamura said. “We recently finished working on RFP [Request for Proposals], IFB [Invitation for Bids] and it’s been only within the last few months that we’ve targeted professional services because professional services, just totality, causes us the least pain.”

Professional services contracts can be valued anywhere from $50,000 up into the millions.

Budget and Fiscal Services Director Mike Hansen said the Carlisle administration is working to get things on paper.

“That’s one of the things that is an effort across the board. It’s not just for this, it’s not just because of a recent incident,” he said. “Part of it was because of the initiative that was taken on by Purchasing in really achieving this accreditation award.”

In January, the city announced the Purchasing Division earned certification and an Outstanding Agency Accreditation Achievement Award from the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing.

“Could things be clearer? There’s potential for everything in the world to be clearer. … Could there be misinterpretation? There could be, in anything,” Hansen said Thursday. “We’re trying to certainly minimize that as best we can, and make sure that everything’s clear.”

Another key prong of the city’s attempts to make sure procurement is clear and stays above board is to assign a buyer from the Purchasing Division to sit in on all evaluation committee meetings, just like they do for request-for-proposal bid evaluations.

“This has been in the works for a while,” Imamura said Thursday. Hansen said the timing with the Fire Department merger contract is a “coincidence.”

“We want to make sure that the law is followed, and we believe the law has been followed,” Hansen said.

About the Author