An open-ended contract worth more than $10 million to install artificial turf fields at Anne Arundel County high schools has been awarded to a politically connected landscaping firm that has never overseen any such project.
Sunny Acres Landscaping submitted the lowest bid in a sealed, competitive process, and an experienced subcontractor will do the bulk of the work. But the project is a first for the family-owned landscaping company, whose vice president was a 2006 candidate for the state legislature and whose wife is on the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee and an aide to County Executive John R. Leopold. Her brother is Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an outspoken Republican lawmaker.
Two county lawmakers questioned the deal on the company's qualifications and the lack of disclosure of any political ties. The officials recently co-sponsored a county bill that would require more transparency in government contracts, and a similar statewide bill was signed into law yesterday by Gov. Martin O'Malley.
"This is the sort of thing the public would like to know about," said Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat. "From a transparency perspective, the public should be able to find out about it and make their own judgment about the award of any contract. It's ultimately the expenditure of their tax money."
Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Republican, added: "Turf fields should be installed by people who are used to installing artificial turf."
Leopold declined to comment, saying his office is not involved with county contracts. Members of his administration adamantly rejected any notion that politics was involved in the process.
"This is strictly an administrative procedure that is arm's length from politics," said Fred Schram, Arundel's director of central services.
Anne Arundel has approved artificial turf installation for 11 high schools over three years, part of a trend in the Baltimore region to replace heavily used athletic fields with synthetic surfaces. Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties have similar projects in the works.
The counties were at one time jointly seeking bids through Baltimore County on behalf of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, of which Leopold is vice president. Two experienced companies were selected, but Baltimore County officials said they withdrew their offer in March after finding a better deal. By that time, Anne Arundel had already moved forward on its own.
Arundel's request for proposals covered its first three field projects, but the contract was for a "blanket order" allowing the winner to work on all of them. Davidsonville-based Sunny Acres' winning bid was still above the $2.3 million budgeted for the project, and the county administration came before the council in March with an emergency bill seeking an additional $600,000 after the contract had been awarded.
The project is part of the county budget, which will be voted on next week.
The major difference between Sunny Acres' bid and the other 10 companies vying for the project was that Sunny Acres said it could install a base and drainage system for $114,000 - nearly half of the average estimate by the other companies, according to records. The original engineers' estimate suggested the cost would be $350,000.
Alex Szachnowicz, chief facilities officer for the school system, said the base work prior to the turf being installed must be top-notch to avoid problems.
"It is utterly critical to the longevity of that project," said Szachnowicz, who is not involved with the turf field project construction or bidding. "You can buy the best turfing system out there, but if the foundation isn't laid properly, then you will have issues with the turfing system."
That price discrepancy on the base estimate alone was more than enough to drop Sunny Acres' bid below its competitors. County project manager Ken Dinnis' report said that Lester J. Belcher III, the company vice president, confirmed the price was accurate.
Belcher said excavation for athletic fields has long been a part of his family company's work, and while this will be its first artificial turf installation, he said the company's subcontractor, Paul Johnson, has installed more than 500 synthetic turf fields.
"[The county] did their due diligence on us. We provided them with our experience and were awarded it," Belcher said. "To the best of my knowledge, the powers in the hierarchy of the county didn't even know I was associated with Sunny Acres."
But he is not a new face. In the past two years, he has made eight contributions totaling more than $1,700 to the Republican State Central Committee and Anne Arundel County Central Committee. His wife made a $200 contribution to Leopold in 2005.
In 2006, he launched an unsuccessful bid for state Senate and later opted instead to run for delegate. He grabbed headlines when police asked to him to stop waving to motorists from a plywood platform on top of his white van, parked on an overpass above U.S. 50.
Throughout the process, the company's political connections were never disclosed, something that will be required in the fiscal year that begins July 1 as a result of Benoit's and Vitale's bill.
"The bottom line is that when you spend public money, you get public scrutiny," said Ryan O'Donnell, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. "It doesn't strike me as wrong that people are asking questions about this contract. It just proves that people want a government that's accountable."
Dennis Callahan, Arundel's chief administrative officer and a former Democratic Annapolis mayor, scoffed at the need for such ties to be disclosed on the turf project, saying, "If you peel back the onion enough, everyone's got some sort of political connection. ... We all come from Adam and Eve."Other companies bidding for the project would have also had to rely on more experienced subcontractors, and Schram, Arundel's director of central services, said Sunny Acres' work is insured by a bonding company in the event that something goes awry.
"We can't get hurt, and we can only be protected in the event that they are not a satisfactory contractor," Schram said. "They're not guaranteed these jobs unless they can do the work in a way that we want it to be done."