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Outside the Box: The Art of Fighting City Hall (Over Traffic Box Art)

"So, when I saw that the highest bidder had won, I began to get a little frustrated. I'm a business owner but I'm a taxpayer, too."

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You win some, you lose some. That was the reaction from Mike Tankersley, president and owner of Signs2U, when he received a letter, dated May 5, from the city of Boise that his Boise-based company had lost a $44,000 contract bid to fabricate 39 traffic box art wraps.

"I wasn't angry at all," Tankersley told Boise Weekly. "Some bids you win, some you lose. In fact, my company recently won a city bid. We're fabricating some new signs for Zoo Boise."

But Tankersley still wanted to learn more details about the request for proposal, which carried a two-year option to wrap even more of the boxes.

"I wasn't even the lowest bid; I was closer to the middle of the pack," he said. "But then I saw that the company with the highest bid, Trademark Sign [Company], actually won the bid."

Tankersley told BW that his proposal to digitally reproduce artists' work, print it on vinyl and wrap the Boise traffic boxes came with a price tag of $1,130 per box. Compare that with the lowest bid from 24-7 Sign Shoppe, of $563 per box, and the highest bid from Trademark, at $1,474 per box. In all, seven companies—all but one of them Boise-based—competed for the project.

"So, when I saw that the highest bidder had won, I began to get a little frustrated. I'm a business owner but I'm a taxpayer, too," Tankersley said. "So I called Colin Millar."

As purchasing manager for the city of Boise's Financial Services Division, Millar oversees the purchasing/bidding of goods and services, and professional services/construction contracts.

"At that stage, all I still wanted was to make sure my company was doing the best job possible in competing for a bid," said Tankersley, who submitted a formal public records request with the city asking for the complete packages from each of the companies that had bid for RFP-15-168.

"When I reviewed the bids, that's when I started to get pretty angry," he said. "It was obviously fixed."

But Millar told BW, "We never said we were going to go with the low bid. Looking back at our scoring, it seems very fair."

Tankersley said that's not good enough; putting the debate over low vs. high bids aside, he's more concerned about a scoring process that he said favors "a dynasty syndrome," benefiting companies that previously won favor with officials.

Boise officials insist nothing could be further from the truth, but Tankersley has gone as far as securing legal representation and delivering a formal notice of protest to Millar, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and Boise City Attorney Robert Luce, which sets up a probable showdown for Tuesday, June 9 when the Boise City Council will ultimately be asked to scrutinize the process.

Boxed In / Boxed Out

By most accounts the city of Boise Traffic Box Art project is a major success and it continues to grow, as evidenced by the city's decision to request bids for 39 more wraps.

"It all started when [Downtown Boise Association Executive Director] Karen Sander saw some similar traffic box wraps in a Canadian city," said Karen Bubb, public arts manager for the Boise City Department of Arts and History.

What began with five traffic boxes in 2009 has now evolved into 103 wraps, with 39 more on the way.

"The original estimate was that most of them would last five years—we're now looking at 10-year life spans," said Bubb. "That's in large part because contractors who have done the wrapping have used high-quality materials."

Selected artists, who must live in Idaho, are paid $1,000 for their designs. The artists retain their work and copyrights, with the city essentially licensing the image for the traffic box. The fabrication and installation process is approximately $1,500 per box; some smaller boxes might cost closer to $1,100. Funding comes from a combination of sources: the city of Boise, the Capital City Development Corporation and Community Development Block Grants.

The locations are chosen by CCDC at intersections within the district's urban renewal zones, and primarily from neighborhood associations from throughout the city that apply for CDBG funds through the City's Neighborhood Reinvestment Grant program to pay for the installation.

"It has become very competitive among artists. For this latest round, we have more than 129 artists apply to have their work wrapped on the 39 traffic boxes," said Bubb, who added that she facilitates an art selection panel that includes representatives from neighborhood associations, CCDC, the City Council and Boise Arts and History Commission. The most recent selection process was a marathon session, Bubb said, with each artist submitting 10 examples of their work and the panel pairing up appropriate art for selected locations.

It's an entirely different process, which city officials insist is less subjective, to select a sign company to create the traffic box wraps. Bubb said she's on that review committee, which also includes representatives from the Ada County Highway District, which actually owns the boxes; CCDC; DBA; community artists; and some neighborhood associations. While public funds are used to fund the work, it turns out that the cost of installation represents only 16 percent of the scoring system used to award the city bid. Budd confirmed that the protest was precedent-setting. "We've never had a protest before," she said.

"Trademark Signs actually presented the highest price-per-box but they won the bidding process," said Tankersley. "It's because the city says it puts much greater emphasis on qualifications. But if that were true, then I'm even more confused."

The formula for the RFP indicates that a perfect score would be 600, with 100 points awarded for the lowest bid; 100 points awarded for superb qualifications; 200 points for what the city calls "basic" qualifications, which include the firm's size, history, personnel and expertise; and another 200 points awarded for "specific" qualifications, including ability to work with high-resolution art, vinyl printing and installation.

Trademark received perfect scores of 200 for both "basic" and "specific" qualifications.

"And that just doesn't make sense to us. Trademark has been in business for six years. We've been in business for eight years yet we got less than half the points they did," said Tankersley. "More importantly, look at Artsign Design. They've been doing this for a half-century in Boise, yet they only received about 170 points in those qualification categories. And Advanced Sign and Design, they've been in business since 1986 and their qualification scores were even lower."

That's when Tankersley talked to some of his competitors and they were none-too-pleased.

"I was blown away," said Jennifer Boyd, owner of Artsign, which opened its doors in 1975.

Signs of Skepticism

Boise city officials said they encourage bids from firms and business enterprises deemed "disadvantaged," meaning they are owned by women and minorities. In fact, RFP 15-168 states plainly, "Women-owned and minority-owned firms are encouraged to submit a proposal."

"The city contacted me and asked me to bid because I'm a female-owned business," Boyd told BW. "I was under the impression that it might help us get a little closer to the top of the stack."

But when she saw the scoring process, Boyd said there was no indication that being a so-called "disadvantaged business entity" had given her any advantage at all, let alone scoring points.

"It didn't factor," she said. "Which I guess is OK. But after talking to Mike [Tankersley] about the outcome, I too put in a public record request to look at the details of the bids."

Boyd said she was intrigued to see that Trademark, in its winning bid proposal, had included an image of a Boise police cruiser in its packet.

"We did the designs for Boise police cars for years, and a few years ago the police department said they wanted a new look, so we worked with them on that," said Boyd. "But the next thing we know, the department was sitting down with Trademark. We're the oldest sign company in the city, and we didn't get that way by telling clients, 'Hey we know the other guy is doing it, but we'll do it cheaper.' Look, our business has been around [40] years and we have 150 cumulative years of experience in our building. You're telling me that Trademark has more qualifications?"

Trademark says it has plenty of qualifications. In its proposal, the company pointed to previous partnerships with the cities of Boise and Nampa, ACHD and numerous Boise neighborhood associations. Its packet also included photos of previous work for Dish restaurant, Treefort Music Fest and even a previous traffic box wrap. But its photo of a Boise police vehicle gave Boyd pause, who said initial design work had been crafted in her shop.

"All we know is that the city wasn't happy with the designs they had," said Trademark co-owner John Yarnell. "We helped facilitate the wants and needs of the [police] department. Honestly, we don't know who came up with that initial design. This a huge surprise to me."

Yarnell said it was more important to focus on the fact that Trademark had a solid working relationship with the city.

"We actually helped them develop the original traffic box art program. Every year has been a little bit different and now it has turned into such a big process," he said. "It's the first year it's gone out for bids. We don't know a lot of the inner workings, but we love working with the city, especially with art."

But Boyd said Trademark was resting on that laurel with its most recent traffic box art bid.

"I smell something funny," she said. "At this point, I'm just watching from the sidelines. We don't have time to micromanage all of this. If I had the time, I would absolutely jump into the middle of it."

The man in the "middle of it" is Tankersley.

"I guess the thing that really upset me the most is when someone in Colin Millar's office at the city told me that the best thing we could do is have a meeting with the Arts and History Department," he said. "I appreciate what they were saying, but then I started to think, more and more, that everything was fixed."

"Basically, they were saying, 'Be friends with the people who would decide the outcome,'" said attorney Jessica Pollack.

Pollack, with Boise-based law firm Carey Perkins LLP, is more than Tankersley's lawyer. She's also his wife.

"I don't know how often people challenge bids like this," Pollack said. "Trust me, the decision to take on the city of Boise has not been taken lightly. But it's about doing the right thing."

Tankersley took a long breath when BW asked about the possibility that he might be jeopardizing a future working relationship with the city by challenging its bid process.

"I'm fully aware of what kind of target this might put on my back," he said. "But the only thing that makes sense is to re-bid this. There is a significant problem here. These companies that had previous contracts with the city are simply able to sweep in and win a new contract, even when their cost is significantly higher."

But in a letter dated May 20 and addressed to Tankersley and Pollack, Millar stated his office had reviewed Tankersley's complaint but, "I have decided to deny your protest."

"We intend to escalate the denial," Pollack told BW, pointing to Tankersley's right to appeal the denial, setting up a public hearing before City Council as early as Tuesday, June 9. Millar and Bubb said that was fine with them, because the city's intention is to complete the installation by the end of the summer.