Moore County manager mumbles his way through some serious CYA

One of my county government moles encouraged me to attend the October 16 meeting of the board of commissioners — promising that it would be worth my while.  Intrigued, I decided to take a trip to Carthage.

I noticed that another attorney was sitting in on this meeting for county attorney Misty Leland, who — I understand — is out on maternity leave.

Things got interesting when county manager Cary McSwain started talking about a conversation over Labor Day weekend with a representative of BroadLink — a Moore County based internet service provider.

(Dick Tracy had a nemesis named “Mumbles.”  He got that name because that’s how he spoke.  McSwain tends to mumble when speaking before the commissioners in formal meetings. We got some serious mumbling tonight.  I had to really strain to decipher what he was talking about.)

McSwain claimed that the rep called him while he was away from the office on the holiday weekend.  (Hmm.  Does every county vendor — or potential county vendor — have the county manager’s after-hours phone number?)

By the way — Broadlink sought the chance to lease space on a county water tower at the August 7 board of commissioners meeting.  Discussion on the request was tabled. (McSwain’s phone conversation with the Broadlink rep reportedly occurred about one month later.)

McSwain said the Broadlink rep told him the company was facing an “emergency” situation that required an antenna be placed on a county-owned water tower.  The antenna would be serving private, non-government customers.   McSwain — slated to retire at the end of the year after decades as a county manager — told the board he unilaterally agreed to allow Broadlink to erect the antenna on the county water tower.   No contract was drawn up, and no agreement for any kind of compensation was reached.

(It is interesting that McSwain used the term “emergency”.  An “emergency” situation is a good, legal way for governments to get around the requirement to bid out services.)

McSwain said — after the antenna was erected — he was informed by county attorney Misty Leland that this arrangement with Broadlink was “illegal.”    The manager said he informed the commissioners about the antenna arrangement, and ordered the antenna to be removed, shortly after hearing from the county attorney.

McSwain and the fill-in attorney came before the commissioners tonight with a motion directing the manager to enter into negotiations with Broadlink seeking compensation for the time the company had its antenna on the county tower.

A few commissioners expressed concern about McSwain’s story.  Nick Picerno asked:

“If it was an emergency over Labor Day, why is it no longer an emergency situation? The antenna is down off of the county property, isn’t it? ”

No one answered Picerno’s question.

McSwain mentioned that Broadlink was already providing internet service to a number of county government facilities.  He said there have been some performance issues with the company’s broadband technology.  McSwain also mentioned that Broadlink doesn’t have many customers.

Commissioner Craig Kennedy expressed concern about the county’s reliance on Broadlink:

“There are other providers out there.  We need to be getting quotes on this stuff.  We need to be bidding these things out, to make sure we are getting the best deal possible for our employees and the taxpayers.”

My antennae really started twitching when commissioner Tim Lea began working overtime to convince all of those gathered that he had no conflict of interest whatsoever in the discussion about Broadlink.  (He mentioned that the firm does provide service to his business.)   To me, it sounded like he was trying TOO hard. 

So, Broadlink got free use of county property for commercial purposes.  Who knows how long this would have lasted, had the county attorney not raised a fuss?   Now, the manager is being directed to get money from the company — after the fact.  What leverage will the county have NOW to get Broadlink to cough up some money?  The antenna is down. 

I could see some commissioners were getting visibly irritated with McSwain as he explained the situation to them.  He’s probably quite lucky that his retirement is already slated for December 1. 

I spoke with #1 county government mole following the meeting.  This source told me to NOT be surprised if the district attorney and / or the SBI is asked to look into the manager’s handling of the matter.

Stay Tuned ….