Update: City contract bypassed public bid process

A $65,000 city contract awarded to P.J. Noble & Associates was not competitively bid, WACH Fox News has learned. That contradicts prior documents released by the city claiming the firm was the lowest bidder.

COLUMBIA (WACH) -- A $65,000 city contract awarded to one of Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin's campaign donors in August was not competitively bid, contradicting city documents stating the deal went to the lowest bidder, WACH Fox News has learned.

City Manager Steve Gantt confirmed via phone Wednesday the $65,000 contract awarded to P.J. Noble & Associates to develop a "public information and community relations initiative" along the North Main Street corridor was awarded on a no-bid basis despite the fact an explanation provided to the public at the August 4 council meeting described the recipient as the "lowest bidder."

Gantt said that description was a "mistake" he would have corrected if he had noticed. Gantt adamantly defended the contract itself, saying the city's procurement code permits the city manager to hire "professional services" consultants on a no-bid basis.

Former Councilman Kirkman Finlay said Wednesday the city's award of a no-bid contract is not necessarily improper, but he encouraged City Council to take another look at the issue.

"Council can simply re-read the item" if there was a mistake in the description provided to the public, said Finlay.

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Finlay also questioned the rule allowing some city contracts to bypass the bid process, saying it can create the appearance of impropriety even if none exists. Finlay lost an April runoff to Mayor Steve Benjamin.

Gantt said Noble's expertise on road construction projects and prior work with the North Main Street construction contractor makes the firm a logical choice to manage the project. City spending records show P.J. Noble & Associates received $8,698 January 28 for its consulting on a streetscaping project. Mayor Benjamin did not take office until July 1. In July, the firm was paid an additional $8,548 for consulting work.

"She (Pat Noble) has done good work for the city," said Gantt.

P.J. Noble & Associates President Pat Noble contributed $450 to Benjamin's mayoral campaign, according to State Ethics Commission records. Noble contributed $200 to the Benjamin campaign November 19 and another $250 the week prior to the April 19 runoff.

Former mayoral candidate and political commentator Kevin Fisher said Wednesday regardless of Noble's prior work for the city, awarding a no-bid contract to a campaign supporter raises ethical questions and the city should have been more careful to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

"Was that a clerical error or an accident, I don't know," said Fisher. "Bottom line is regardless there is no need or use for this contract to begin with an it's an outrage that it was given as a sole source contract."

Mayor Benjamin was unavailable for comment Wednesday afternoon, according to spokesman Michael Wukela.

P.J. Noble & Associates' duties under the contract include writing press releases and newsletters in addition to holding public meetings related to infrastructure improvements along the North Main Street corridor. The contract originally came under scrutiny in August after WACH Fox News asked why the city's six-member internal public relations staff couldn't handle the job itself.