ANNAPOLIS — Sometimes the lowest bidder isn’t the best.
Maryland’s three-member Board of Public Works Wednesday unanimously approved an emergency short-term deal to replace a winning bidder, whose bid was so low it attracted questions earlier this year from Comptroller Peter Franchot. Ultimately, the lowest bidder quickly faltered in its contractual obligations and was terminated by the Department of Juvenile Services just a month after it took over the contract.
Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed told the board that the situation surrounding the contract that was canceled after just 17 days was “fairly unique.”
Abed said the agency tested the proposed equipment used by Irvine, California-based Sentinel Offender Services, which has more than two decades in the industry, and was satisfied.
“What we were told was that the company was switching their technology,” Abed said, explaining Sentinel’s upgrades of cellular equipment. “It appears they accelerated that new equipment to us before it was fully tested and fully vetted.”
On Wednesday, Abed acknowledged that it quickly became clear that Sentinel was not performing up to the contract, and state officials terminated the deal.
“So you tested the equipment and it worked fine, then it was kind of a bait and switch because they rolled out (untested) equipment,” said Gov. Larry Hogan, who along with Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp make up the board. “It was supposed to be new and improved, but it wasn’t really.”
The board Wednesday unanimously approved a new one-year contract valued at more than $440,000 with Boulder, Colorado-based Behavioral Interventions Inc. to provide electronic home monitoring of juveniles.
In June, the Department of Juvenile Services canceled a more than $1.8 million, five-year contract with Sentinel. The cancellation came just two months after the Board of Public works approved the deal that replaced the incumbent service provider — Behavioral Interventions.
The contract approved in April appeared to satisfy concerns frequently raised by both Hogan and Franchot, who have repeatedly pushed for more competition while eschewing bids that give incumbent vendors the inside track.
But during that April 6 meeting, Franchot raised questions about Sentinel’s bid, which was 40 percent lower than the incumbent company.
“I think you were right to question the low bid that we got,” Abed said on Wednesday, adding that when the contract began a number of the devices provided by the new vendor “failed.”
Abed told Franchot and the board at the time, and again on Wednesday, that the agency tested the equipment of the winning bidder and was initially confident it could carry out the terms of the contract.
Franchot said he took no pleasure in having brought up the issue in April.
“I agree with the governor that you are to be praised for taking quick action and accepting responsibility for it,” Franchot said.
“It’s a tough situation because we do want to save money and get low bids and we certainly want to look into those,” Abed said. “In some cases they work. In this case, it did not. In terms of moving forward, I think we want to put a little more scrutiny on those providers and try to balance that with trying to encourage smaller businesses to come in and compete. I think it’s been a bit of a mixed bag for us, but we have has some success by stimulating competition and getting more bids.”