NEVADA CITY, Calif. October 26, 2011 – The Nevada County BOS disbursed funds to promote tourism and economic development in the county at yesterday’s meeting. Four of the five supervisors directed staff to draft a contract with the Regional Chambers of Commerce, effectively handing over $50,000 without a competitive bid. However, the highlight of the meeting, or some would say the low point, was a $20,000 contract for the county’s tourism website maintenance and expansion.

This Time, It’s Personal

Maybe it was the approach of Halloween — its scary trappings and a sugar high induced by too much candy. The approximately two hours spent on debating a paltry $20,000 contract illustrated a local tendency to make it personal, not issue-based. It was politics as usual, Nevada County-style.

The Facts

The BOS agenda item 14 reads, in part: “Resolution authorizing execution of contract with Shannon Pelline dba Sierra FoodWineArt pertaining to the provision of maintenance services for the County’s Tourism website, in the maximum amount of $20,000, for the period October 25, 2011 through June 30, 2012.”

The contract was part of the county’s $125,000 fund designated for economic development in this fiscal year. $40,000 for the Nevada County Economic Resource Council (NCERC)and $10,000 for the Truckee Tomorrow project were approved within minutes and without discussion.

Another $50,000 was to be designated for a competitive bid to solicit projects to promote tourism in Nevada County, according to the agenda.

The Process

Sierra FoodWineArt (SFWA) was one of four finalists for the “back-end, integration and database services, tracking and reporting services, content management, editing services and moderation service for the website,” as described by the county. SWFA, owned by Shannon Pelline, partnered with Blue Cat Design for the technical part of the contract.

All applicants were vetted by the purchasing group who then submitted their recommendation to the budget subcommittee. The subcommittee includes two supervisors — Owens and Scofield. After four months of analysis, discussions about contract details and conditions, the approval of the contract should have been routine.

Focus on the Person, Not the Issue

The presence of Tea Party Patriots, local bloggers and assorted members of the public for this item was not really surprising. Pelline’s husband Jeff, a former newspaper editor, runs his personal blog – separate from their commercial Sierra FoodWineArt venture. Given the often contentious nature of the local blogosphere, a few of his fellow bloggers (Rebane, Steele and Pruett) were in attendance.

Judi Caler, who introduced herself as a Nevada City resident and co-founder of Reclaiming Our American Rights(ROAR), proceeded to paint a scenario melding First 5 of Nevada County, Occupy Wall Street, the Constitution and the takeover by a “one-world government” as cause and effect of the contract. Referring to Shannon Pelline as “married to a well-known blogger, I wouldn’t appreciate my tax dollars used to promote his views.” She also reminded the BOS that “three of you are up for election and the people are watching.”

Barry Pruett, an unsuccessful candidate for Clerk-Recorder, is a member of the Nevada County Tea Party Patriots, according to his blog. He chastised the board for not picking the Joint Chambers proposal over SFWA’s: “The Chamber of Commerce is uniquely positioned to promote – without bias – all of the areas of tourism within Nevada County and thereby create jobs in Nevada County.” He went on to describe the proposed action as “sending money down a ‘cul de sac”‘ with no clear long term plan and no vision,” referring to a lack of long-term planning. He said the Chambers’ bid was lower ($17,400) and wanted to know why the lowest bid wasn’t awarded the contract.

County staff explained that the Chambers’ proposal had two components, one with a $20,000 Groupon module. When asked by staff if their proposal could be executed without the Groupon module, the Chambers decided to withdraw their proposal.

The perceived conflict of interest for the supervisor sitting on First 5’s board, where Shannon Pelline is a part-time bookkeeper, was dismissed by County Counsel. The board of First 5 is a policy board. The bookkeeper works for the Executive Director, not the board.

Have Your Cake, And Eat It Too

Chair Scofield, sensitive to several speaker’s concerns about the Joint Chambers, proposed to take a break from the item and focus on the following item on the agenda, “$50,000 to be designated for a competitive bid to solicit projects to promote tourism in Nevada County.”

Instead of making it a competitive process, Scofield proposed to allocate the money to the Chambers, with a provision they should collaborate with other organizations in the county, namely the Arts Collaborative and the Vintners Association to name a few.

Supervisor Lamphier had some misgivings about this, stating the agenda called for competition, not an outright grant. He appeared unconvinced by CEO Haffey’s assurance this would only give direction to staff, not award the money immediately, and chose to abstain from the vote.

Proper Political Pedigree Litmus Test a No-Go

Returning to the website contract, supervisors took a good long look at members of the public and reacted to the comments previously made.

A visibly irritated Ted Owens admitted to having his a** chapped by posts on Jeff Pelline’s personal blog, but that the proposal submitted by SFWA was the best. “This is politics, but I am not checking my integrity at the door.” He added that any county contract has provisions allowing for cancellation if problems arise.

Nate Beason, who announced his bid for a third term this morning, didn’t take kindly to being lectured on constitutional rights. “I spent 30 years defending the Constitution as an officer in the Navy. As a supervisor I also took an oath of office.” He proceeded to quote the French philosopher Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” He said, “The First Amendment is to protect unpopular speech. Popular speech does not need protection. I believe staff and the subcommittee’s recommendation is the best.”

Terry Lamphier agreed with both Owens and Beason and added for the benefit of the ROAR members: “Free speech is a big part of American rights.”

The process — from requesting and vetting bids, to giving the public an opportunity to weigh in and then adopting a recommendation — worked. The BOS voted 5-0 to award the contract to SFWA and Blue Cat Design.