Executive councilors frustrated they can't review liquor pact
CONCORD - Executive councilors questioned the attorney general on the process used by the New Hampshire Liquor Commission to award a $200 million warehouse contract, but acting on his advice decided not to order a hearing of their own on a selection process that has been challenged by two unsuccessful bidders.
The questions surrounding the award of the 20-year contract to Exel Inc., of Westerville, Ohio, came as the governor and council were winding down their monthly breakfast meeting Wednesday at the Department of Transportation, prior to reconvening at 10 a.m. in the State House for their regular session.
Councilor Debora Pignatelli of Nashua asked Attorney General Michael Delaney about his opinion that the Liquor Commission Modernization Act, passed by the state Legislature in 2009, exempts Liquor Commission contracts from Executive Council review.
"We hear from other groups that we do have authority and this is one of the contracts we should be involved in," she said.
Delaney responded that the legislation specifically exempts the contract from Executive Council review. "The General Court made a policy decision to set up a process that would enable the Liquor Commission to handle that award within the Liquor Commission itself," he said.
Third-place bidder Law Warehouses of Nashua, which has provided warehouse and trucking services to the Liquor Commission since the 1970s, is expected to file a lawsuit claiming the commission violated the state's competitive bidding statutes in a process that was tilted toward Exel. Second-place bidder XTL-NH has filed a formal protest with the commission, making many of the same allegations.
Delaney said the commission and its evaluation committee conducted a thorough request for proposals and bid evaluation process that complied with all the appropriate statutes. "Not only did we review the process, but we had compliance people and counsel at the table at all times," he said. "We feel very comfortable that the Liquor Commission has undertaken a fair process."
Councilor Chris Pappas of Manchester asked if there was anything to prevent the liquor commission from agreeing to a review by the Executive Council voluntarily, even though it is not legally required. "We are still charged with oversight of the Liquor Commission as a whole," said Councilor Chris Sununu of Newfields. "While we can't review the contract for approval, that doesn't prevent us from providing some transparency. ... I would put that on the table as an option, especially this contract because there is such light on it."
Delaney said the council could hold an informational hearing, but he advised against it, citing anticipated litigation from Law Warehouses.
"I think you have the authority to convene a hearing," Delaney said, "but I would have to play a critical role in what questions could be answered, which would frustrate the information you are trying to get."
Councilor Ray Burton of Bath said one of the council's primary mandates is to review state contracts. "Yet we can't seem to get a hold of this one - a multimillion-dollar project in our state," he said. "That's frustrating to me."
Law Warehouses President Brian Law said he appreciated the council's attempt to initiate a review.
"I was heartened that the Executive Council, in their agency oversight role, expressed frustration and concern about the fairness of the RFP process," he said. "But I am disappointed in the attorney general's refusal to answer questions from the councilors about the protest process and contract award."
Other council action
At its regular meeting, the Executive Council also:
-- Approved a plan to consolidate business services for several state departments under a single agency in the Department of Administrative Services. The departments of Justice, Employment Security, Fish and Game, Resources and Economic Development, Education and Corrections will now all work through a Shared Services Center for business processes.
-- Authorized a $100,000 payment to Margaret M. Maloney of North Hampton, surviving spouse of Greenland Police Chief Michael P. Maloney, who died in the line of duty last April.
-- Approved the use of Homeland Security and Emergency Management funds to enable the town of Conway to buy out 13 property owners in the Transvale Acres mobile home park along the Saco River to avoid future flood problems. The development was hard hit by Tropical Storm Irene, when the river crested above 17 feet. About half of Transvale Acres is in the floodway, with 98 percent of it in the floodplain.