By Sami Mirza

Altavista Journal

News Correspondent

Residents have voiced concerns the town does business and puts out bids for contracts, even as the Town Council voted to fire a controversial consultant in the thick of the conversation.

It began at the town’s budget work session on Thursday, May 18, when council voted 4-1 to discontinue their contract with Deputy Town Manager and Director of Public Safety Mike Jones at the end of this fiscal year. Through a contract with his company “Major Security Consulting & Design,” Jones has had a significant portfolio in Town Hall, including assisting Mayor and Town Manager Gary Hodnett with economic development.

As council talked about how ending Jones’ tenure with the town would shave $30,000 off the town’s FY 2023-24 budget, Hodnett said that Jones made up for his fee by getting the town better deals on remodeling contracts.

“We will be having to add some money for the discounts and all that he gets us working with his people,” Hodnett said during the meeting. “He's brought in a world-class architect to talk about this building, and I had three meetings with them and that didn't cost us a penny. They were willing to do the engineering and the architectural drawings and all that, basically a basement bargain price.”

On an ongoing project to “harden” the Hurt Town Hall and make it more secure, Hodnett said, “the price that’s saved is pretty much his salary.”

“There’re deals that are in place,” he added. “The hardening — the bulletproof material, I don't think there would be an issue there, but we will probably have to go to another architect.”

Kim Johnson, a town resident, asked why the professional in question would not work with Hurt unless Jones was involved.

“These are clients of his, he brought them to the table because he works with them,” Hodnett replied. “Like the architect, they designed schools, government buildings and all and provided security for all of that.”

Less than five minutes later, Paul Johnson, who spoke earlier in the meeting in opposition to the town’s budget proposal and serves on the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals, spoke up.

“I wish we wouldn't have heard what the mayor said about the architecture and engineer,” he said. “I'm a contractor. I have to bid legal documents and to sit here and hear that a contractor has an inside track on architecture instead of it going out to bid, I got a problem with that. That's bid-rigging and it's against the law and I wish to God I wouldn't have heard it.”

When Hodnett replied that the architect was just giving initial advice, Johnson said that the architectural firms he had worked with always gave out initial advice for free.

“No matter who they are, they give you a consultant for free,” Johnson told Hodnett. “Then you decide what you want to put out, how you want to do the bid package, that goes out for bid. That's how it always works. I'm sorry, I wished I would not have heard that. You cannot explain that off to me.”

Johnson was backed up by Michael Blackstock, who owns and operates a construction company in Hurt and has been a frequent critic of the town.

“To me it was a scare tactic,” Blackstock said. “At what point are you going to answer the questions we get up and ask, Gary?”

Hodnett replied that there would not be a back-and-forth, and that it was Council’s time to work on the budget.

In a phone call the following day, Johnson walked back his allegations from the meeting.

“I’m not accusing him of anything, but when you start with that verbiage, and when you’re sole-sourcing everything through one individual and his security firm, that don’t look good,” he said.

For Johnson, the issue lies in the bidding process used to obtain the architectural services. Generally speaking, when local governments hire contractors, they have to go through a “request for proposal” process. In an RFP, a locality publicly announces a project like the renovations on Town Hall, and any contractor interested in taking the job submits a proposed plan for doing the work and a price for that work. Typically, the proposal with the lowest cost wins, Johnson said — even if it’s a $100 difference.

“When you put it out in front of five or six people, you’re going to get a better price, especially when you know you’re having to bid against four or five other people,” he said, referring to the fact that bidders usually know who else is interested in taking the work.

However, Johnson — who says he watches where bids are typically announced “religiously” — does not see this process happening on any plans Hurt has in place.

“I don’t know that they’re bidding things out,” he said. “They’re just pitching it in the direction of Mike Jones.”

For his part, Hodnett said that the architect in question was not called in to discuss the hardening of Town Hall, but the town’s recent purchase of Staunton Plaza Shopping Center.

“I don’t think Paul understood what we were talking about,” Hodnett said. “It’s absolutely nothing there.”

Specifically, Hodnett said the architect advised council on whether or not the building was structurally sound to begin with.

“The guy came down and did a walk-around before we were in any kind of contract negotiations or anything to give us an opinion — certainly not a contract — and whether in his expertise he thought that it might be worthwhile to pursue,” Hodnett said in a phone interview Sunday, referring to the architect. “He didn’t recommend anything or talk about anything, he came down, walked around it, did a look-see, and he said most of the buildings built around this time were fairly stable.”

However, during his report at the May 2 business meeting, Jones said he was working with the architect, “on optimal tenants for the plaza and developing a look for people to say, ‘this is what we would like.’”

Hodnett said he “doesn’t remember going back that far,” but that Jones’ statement may have been based on a brainstorming session that Hodnett and Jones held to come up with unique businesses to attract to the plaza.

“That’s the only conversation I remember,” Hodnett said.

As for Town Hall, Hodnett said the only item that had been decided on was bulletproof glass for town staff, which will be sourced from Amulet Ballistic Barriers in Scottsdale, Arizona. He said the town’s price for the glass was not dependent on Jones.

“Oh no, I’m sure it was publicly available,” Hodnett said.

Council’s conversations on both Staunton Plaza and Town Hall seem to have been kept largely behind closed doors; apart from a few mentions here and there, there is little record in the minutes of town meetings of either the discussion with Amulet or the architect’s work.

This, Johnson said, cuts town residents out of the conversation regarding future investments.

“If you have plans for the building, share it with the town, so the town can give you their input,” he said. “I’m not going to say its secrecy, but just be transparent. Just sit there and say, ‘this is what we’re thinking, what do y’all think?’ Because you’re stewards of the town money.”