County Executive pulls PR contract as Controller sues


Attorney Timothy P. Brennan, solicitor for the Northampton County Controller’s Office, files suit that leads to withdraw of controversial no bid contract in Northampton County.

Northampton County Executive John Brown announced Wednesday he was canceling a contract with a public relations company, the same day the county controller filed a lawsuit alleging the transaction broke county rules.

Brown’s administration had vigorously defended the $84,000 contract with Sahl Communications, but Brown said in a statement Wednesday, provided by the company, that “it was in the best interest of the county to withdraw the agreement.”

It was the resolution Controller Steve Barron was hoping for, and it came 66 minutes after he filed the lawsuit in Northampton County Court.

Brown’s decision should stop some of the negative attention the contract drew, but it doesn’t necessarily squash the legal dispute. Barron, the county’s elected controller responsible for policing internal controls over fiscal policy, said he needs more than a statement to the media to withdraw his suit
“I’m glad that it appears to be resolved, but I’m not withdrawing the lawsuit just yet,” Barron said.

In the statement, Brown also noted he met with Barron on Monday to discuss the disputed contract and chose to pull it that day after consulting his legal counsel.

“We came to this conclusion prior to learning about Mr. Barron’s decision to file suit,” Brown said. “I met with Mr. Barron on Monday morning and told him I would respond back to him after considering his request.”

Brown had already avoided one lawsuit on the matter when council voted 5-4 along party lines against taking him to court. The split was the same when council voted against a resolution to repeal the contract.

Councilman Lamont McClure, who introduced those measures, argued council had a sworn duty to enforce the administrative code, which dictates procurement procedures. McClure also sent Brown a letter last month urging him to rescind the contract.

Brown in February inked the deal with Sahl Communications without putting the contract out for bid or soliciting proposals from other agencies. He instead used a method of selection in the county code called noncompetitive negotiation, which is allowed when the services aren’t considered professional.

But in that case, the executive’s order must include specific reasons for using noncompetitive negotiation, and council solicitor Phil Lauer said Brown didn’t meet that requirement.

Additionally, the spat parses the phrase “professional service,” as defined by the administrative code — a distinction that determines whether Brown can pick a service provider or must seek multiple offers.

McClure argues that public relations is a professional service under the administrative code, requiring the executive to seek multiple offers.

Brown himself has minimally addressed the spat, but previously said he was confident his office’s handling of the contract complied with the administrative code, a position he said is bolstered by previous administrations’ actions.

The county’s procurement manager, Kathryn Anderson, also said the executive’s methods weren’t out of the ordinary.

In the lawsuit, Barron makes the case that communications are a professional service, and the contract doesn’t meet the standard of a sole-source contract, which would absolve the executive from seeking proposals.

“It’s about keeping the code in check, because next time the stakes could be higher,” Barron said about filing the suit. “I commend the county executive … he did the right thing. It’s a shame it had to come to all this.”