City council OKs revised election billboard contracts

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The City Council on Tuesday approved a revised set of contracts for an election billboard campaign for Detroit residents after the administration put the brakes on a prior no-bid deal that would have cost nearly $1 million.

The legislative body passed one of them in a narrow vote after concerns were raised by the city’s Law Department about pending litigation.

Detroit Corporation Counsel Melvin Butch Hollowell said longstanding contractor International Outdoor had previously been granted approval from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals for a billboard in the middle of Detroit’s Grand Boulevard overlay, an area that spans from East Grand Boulevard to West Grand Boulevard and south to the Detroit River.

The practice is not permitted, contends Hollowell, who has filed a circuit court challenge to the zoning board’s decision.

The council ultimately approved the $123,750 contract with International Outdoor, 5-4. President Pro Tem George Cushingberry Jr. and members James Tate, Mary Sheffield and Raquel Castaneda-Lopez voted no.

Separately, Westland-based Lamar Advertising will be paid $65,000 as the second vendor selected to provide the service.

The zoning debate comes after the Farmington Hills advertising firm lost a three-year, $900,000 no bid contract last month after the Duggan administration objected.

But International Outdoor President Randy Oram said he’s not a party to the legal challenge. He contends it’s a political dispute between the zoning board and law department and he’s “caught in the middle.”

“I’m doing the best I can, trying to mind my own business and deliver good value and good product,” he said. “I have nothing pending with the city. I have not been served with any violations.”

Elections officials have been pressing for a vote on the billboard contracts to educate city voters with three weeks to go before the March 8 presidential primary, City Clerk Janice Winfrey said.

Last month, Mayor Mike Duggan held up the council’s initial approval of the campaign to further review the no-bid contract.

The mayor’s decision came several days after The Detroit News reported that the cost of election billboards was doubling to nearly $1 million. The total for the previous three years had been $413,000, according to city records.

Duggan pulled the contract after it gained approval from the council and was submitted to the city’s Financial Review Commission. The state-mandated review commission was installed to oversee the city’s finances after bankruptcy and must sign off on contracts that exceed $750,000.

The council approved the deal despite questions from some, including Cushingberry. He questioned whether billboards work, since turnout is typically low in Detroit.

Winfrey said she had inherited the contract with the longstanding firm and complied when the administration asked that the work be put out for bid after it was pulled from the review commission.

“They said ‘open it up.’ I said ‘OK, let’s open it up,’” Winfrey said. “It is my job as the clerk to educate and inform. We are not doing anything any different than what we’ve done in the past.”

John Roach, a spokesman for Duggan, said Tuesday that the city’s purchasing department put the contract out to bid after the review commission meeting and the two vendors won the competitive request for proposals.

“The mayor feels strongly that contracts are to be bid out unless there are extenuating circumstances,” Roach said in an email.

Oram has told The News costs are increasing because more money is needed to educate voters after the state legislature in December voted to end straight-party voting.

The city’s elections director, Daniel Baxter, has noted that 78 percent of Detroiters typically voted straight ticket.

Boysie Jackson, the city’s chief procurement officer, said Tuesday that International Outdoor’s pricing was significantly higher than Lamar by $1,300 to $1,500 per sign.

But a decision was made to use a combination of both services, since International Outdoor has locations on many surface streets that elections officials were hoping to target.

Hollowell said legal staff will talk with the council before next week’s formal session about the pending court challenge.