Chea Waters Evans

Ash trees on Lake Road identified for removal. Photo credit Vince Crockenberg.

What started as a routine request for proposals to remove some ash trees along Lake Road has become a controversy surrounding the Charlotte Selectboard.

After receiving five bids to remove trees in anticipation of infestation by the emerald ash borer insect, the Selectboard voted at its April 22 meeting to award the contract to Chris’s Lawn Care and Mini Excavating. A few days later, Greg Ranallo of Teachers Tree Service, who also responded to the RFP, posted on the Front Porch Forum email list a post titled “Town RFPs: Fairness or Favoritism,” alleging that the Selectboard made a biased decision.

In his post, Ranallo pointed out that his bid was lower than Chris’s Lawn Care’s, that his time frame was half that of the winning bid and that his company has extensive, specific tree-related experience, while Chris’s Lawn Care does mainly landscape work. He wrote, “I feel all contracts should now be scrutinized for favoritism. And if a higher bid is accepted over a lower bid a clear explanation should be given. There currently is no such explanation in the minutes.” In his post, Ranallo included a link to the meeting on the VCAM web site.

The meeting
Town Administrator Dean Bloch presented the RFP agenda item at the April 22 meeting, noting that the bids from Teachers and Chris’s Lawn Care were within $25 of each other, and that in its bid Chris’s Lawn Care specified that the removal of smaller, unmarked trees was included in the price. Bloch indicated that he checked with Teachers to make sure that those trees were also included in their bid; Ranallo said they were. Before any discussion of the matter, however, Selectboard member Carrie Spear made a motion to award the contract to Chris’s Lawn Care, and Frank Tenney seconded the motion.

Charlotte Tree Warden Mark Dillenback said he was happy that two bids proposed covering the entire stretch of road and that he was pleased and surprised that both local companies were interested in the project. “I’m familiar with their work, and they’re an outstanding company, so I think either way it’s going to be okay and good, and I concur with VJ’s assessment toward Teachers because they’re tree specialists and can get the job done quicker,” he said. Dillenback was referring to VJ Comai, a Charlotter who is the City Arborist in Burlington.

During the discussion, Spear said she thought Chris’s Lawn Care would “do just as good a job as any [tree company], if not better.” Selectboard Chair Matt Krasnow said that due to their expertise and the shorter time frame indicated in the bid, he was inclined to choose Teachers. No other Selectboard member indicated a preference during the remaining short discussion, but when it came to a vote, members Louise McCarren, Frank Tenney, who didn’t participate in the discussion at all, and Spear all voted in favor of Chris’s Lawn Care. Krasnow voted against choosing Chris’s, and Tegatz said he would “abstain or recuse” himself because one of the involved parties was currently doing tree work for him personally. The vote ended up being 3-1-1 in favor of Chris’s Lawn Care.

None of the Selectboard members who voted in favor of Chris’s over Teachers responded to questions regarding why they chose the more expensive bid that proposed a longer work time. The Charlotte News made repeated attempts over several days to contact Tenney about his decision; he did not respond to phone calls or emails. Spear said she would decline to comment until after an upcoming special Selectboard session regarding the RFP, which at press time was scheduled for Wednesday, May 1 at 6:00 p.m.

In defense of his decision to abstain or recuse himself from the vote—it was not made clear during the meeting which of those options he was exercising—Tegatz referred to the town policy on purchasing and conflict of interest in an email and did not respond to further questions on the matter. The town policy states that a conflict of interest would arise should a Selectboard member stand to benefit financially from a decision and that potential conflicts of interest should be discussed among board members to ascertain whether a member should recuse himself. This did not happen at the April 22 meeting; there was no indication that Tegatz would benefit financially from either Teachers or Chris’s being chosen for the job.

McCarren also declined to comment on the reasons for her decision, writing in an email, “Matt speaks for me,” referring to Krasnow and his position as the board’s chair. In response to a query about McCarren’s vote for Chris’s Lawn Care, Krasnow said, “I can only speak for my decisions. I can’t speak for anyone else’s decisions.”

The aftermath
After Ranallo’s post on Front Porch Forum, responses immediately flooded both his personal email and the message board. Ranallo said that he has received “100 percent support” from people who contacted him, and the posts from Charlotte residents on FPF indicate the same. “A shameful demonstration that the good-old-boy club is alive and well in Charlotte. Good to know,” wrote James Barker. Charlie Proutt of Distinctive Landscapes and Horsford Nursery wrote, “I trust Matt and the Selectboard will rescind the vote last meeting and honor the lowest responsible bid. We can’t be a town that is unprofessional toward our contractors. We can’t lose the trust in local firms we ask to prepare bids for us. And in light of the tree warden’s recommendation, we can’t simply dismiss the reasoned advice of our hard working and professional volunteers.”

Marty Illick, who is on the Charlotte Planning Commission, wrote “I recommend [the Selectboard] swiftly withdraw their approval of the ash tree bid award and reconsider awarding the bid to Greg Ranallo’s far more qualified firm…Appalling to observe the SB did not more carefully consider the facts and consultation of our two town experts on this project—Mark and VJ. This very poor decision is unfortunate, but there is time to correct if the SB takes charge right now.”

Ranallo said that over the years he’s been in the business and responding to RFPs, this is the only one he lost that bothered him. As a Charlotte resident, he said he feels a responsibility to give back to the town and often will bid lower than his usual rate on local projects because it’s important to contribute to the community. This decision, he said, has made him reconsider how the Selectboard operates in general. “It makes me wonder about other decisions that are made… Are they working for the interest of the town or themselves? I don’t know the answer, but I think we need to watch more closely.”

Chris Fortin, proprietor of Chris’s Lawn Care and Mini Excavating, said the responses on Front Porch Forum have been difficult for him and his family. “We have been in business for over 25 years and most of what we do is word of mouth,” he said. “We have tons of qualifications in many areas, including tree cutting and removal both along roads and right next to multi-million dollar houses.”

He also indicated that although he won the bid, he believes the Selectboard’s bid selection process wasn’t fair. Referring to Bloch asking Teachers if they would also include the smaller trees after seeing that it was included in Chris’s Lawn Care’s bid, Fortin said, “Look back at the opening of the tree removal bid Selectboard meeting. And see whose proposal was the best that night. They then offered Teachers what we put in our bid, and he agreed. Now ask yourself: was that fair? We weren’t offered a chance to change our bid based on what Teachers put in their bid, perhaps that had something to do with who got the bid?”

What happens next
 The Selectboard has a meeting scheduled for May 1; on the agenda is time for public input and discussion on improving the bidding process, as well as a likely executive session portion to discuss the contractual obligation of the town. Krasnow said that the Selectboard, should it decide to explore rescinding the vote, would be more complicated than just changing their minds. “I believe votes, in general, can be rescinded by holding a subsequent vote to do so that passes with a majority of the Board,” he said. “Although there are many specific reasons that would make rescinding a vote not possible as well. In this specific instance, the vote itself entered the Town into a contractual agreement. Whether or not this specific vote can be rescinded would be something the Selectboard could explore with the Town’s general counsel.”

Beyond the immediate matter at hand is the larger question of how the Selectboard operates in voting circumstances and how its members are fulfilling their obligations to the town. Ranallo said that his trust in the process and the Selectboard has been damaged by the situation and that he thinks the trouble lies deeper than just this one vote. He indicated that the problem is systemic. “People have been sending me stories about other incidents,” he said.

Ranallo said he thinks this decision was based on personal relationships rather than what’s best for the town. “I think we need to watch more closely so people can’t just hand contracts to their friends,” he said. Though he wouldn’t name the person, Ranallo said he had a conversation with a town employee a full week before the Selectboard that now has him wondering if the Selectboard vote was a mere formality.

“I ran into someone that works for the town a week before that meeting and he said to me, ‘They should give that bid to you, not Fortin. I don’t know why they’re giving it to Fortin.’ And I just thought he thought that Fortin might get it…so I think they were probably talking about giving it to him way before the meeting.”

Krasnow said that the integrity of the Selectboard and its decision making is important to him and that the special session scheduled for May 1 will allow an opportunity to “deliberate thoughtfully on two issues: What is in the Town’s best interest at this point in time? And how can we improve the bid selection process moving forward?”

Though the issue has grown complicated, all parties involved are looking for a resolution that’s fair. “I have nothing against Chris,” Ranallo said. “I want to be friends with all my neighbors and be on good terms with everyone in town…All I want is integrity in the process.”

Fortin said he has been working the community for many years and that he is interested in moving forward. “We aren’t looking to start confrontation with anyone, just doing the job we were awarded,” he said. McCarren, though she would not explain the reason for her vote, acknowledged, “The decision is unpopular. Any and all ideas to improve our process are welcome.”

Krasnow said he sees the situation as an opportunity for growth. “I’m encouraged so many people have expressed an interest in our local government and its decision-making process, and I’m committed to leveraging this windfall of community participation to re-shape and codify a better institutional process for future Selectboards, contractors and residents to rely upon,” he said.