IS THE ROOF CAVING IN ON WHAT APPEARS TO BE AN ‘INSIDER’ DEAL GIVEN TO SCHOOL ASST. SUPT. COTE’s SECRETARY, LYNN WHITNEY, ON FREE SLAVE LABOR FROM THS VOCATIONAL CARPENTRY STUDENTS? … KINNAS SNIFFS OUT AN EGREGIOUS CASE OF APPARENT INSIDER TRADING … CITY COUNCIL WONDERS: HOW THE HECK DID WE GET INVOLVED? … JUST ANOTHER “OIP” — “ONLY IN PALOOKAVILLE,” WHERE MARY JANE AND JOE KAPANSKI GET SCREWED
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, FRIDAY, SEPT. 28, 2012) — This story bears watching. On Tuesday this week, the city council entertained an unusual communication, listed on the agenda as No. 8:
A communication from Frank K. Cote, Assistant Superintendent, Pittsfield Public Schools, submitting an Order authorizing the City of Pittsfield to enter into a construction contract for the purpose of promoting vocational education for students at Taconic High School.
Sounds good, right? Ah, my friends, but this is Pittsfield, and the item has a peculiar redolence to it. One question immediately becomes apparent: Why is the city council being asked to vote on an item that should be before the school committee? You won’t like the answer.
This little caper shows how “the law” routinely finds itself abused by those in power and those with access to those in power.
Deep Behind the Scenes, Where They Are Used to No One Watching
The stinky saga began, as most things do in the city, deep behind the scenes and, while officially in the public’s notice, it remained practically invisible except to the inside players, the way it has for many years prior. That’s how they like it: Keep taxpayers dumb and ignorant while they go to work cherry picking.
On April 13, 14, 15, and 16 of this year, the Pittsfield Public Schools ran a “Public Notice” ad in the Boring Broadsheet reading as follows:
Pittsfield Public Schools’ Carpentry Program is seeking a sponsor for the 2012-2013 school year. Scope of work may include; [sic] new house construction, additions to existing homes, renovations, or garages. These programs exclude roofing. Prospective applications should apply in writing to: Frank K. Cote, Assistant Superintendent of Vocation, Workforce and College Readiness Pittsfield Public Schools 269 First Street Pittsfield, MA 02102[.] No phone calls please. Deadline for applications is April 27th, 2012.
Apart from the horrible punctuation misusage, the ad seems innocuous enough, advertising fuzzily for projects on which the carpentry students will work. Keep in mind the bidding for this work is theoretically open to the general public. The deal is you supply the materials and the students build it, free of charge, although the ad doesn’t tell you that latter part (for good reason, as you shall discover).
On April 25, Cote received this application letter. It was only one of two he received.
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7 Old Cheshire Rd PO Box 25
Lanesborough, MA 01237
Frank K. Cote, Assistant Superintendent [etc.]
Dear Mr. Cote:
Please consider this an application in regard to the Public Notice dated April 13, 2012 for a new house construction for the Carpentry program at Taconic High School. I own a six-acre parcel of land on Brickhouse Mountain Road in Pittsfield, MA. The land is flat, cleared and has been surveyed. I am very much interested in having a one-story, ranch-style home with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, two-car garage and a small front porch construction on this property. It would have vinyl siding, one fireplace, granite countertops and wood cabinets, with a combination of hardwood, ceramic and carpet for flooring. After reviewing the logistics of this job and it is acceptable to both parties, I can then enter into a contract between the Pittsfield Public School and myself.
Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Lynn K. Whitney
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A Little Inside Wheeling and Dealing, Perhaps?
Ah, still most all well and good (except for Whitney’s avoidance of the serial comma) She sounds like a public-spirited citizen who wants to help out the carpentry program. A couple of things do seem odd, though. Whitney refers to “the Carpentry program at Taconic High School.” Where in the ad is the school specified? How did Whitney know that? Did she have inside information?
On the attachment that has her completed application, we see this line:
EMPLOYED BY: Pittsfield Public Schools
Does that send up a red flag? No, then consider that Lynn Whitney is Frank Cote’s secretary. We repeat: Lynn Whitney is Frank Cote’s secretary. What we have, then, is the secretary of the person advertising the bidding applying for and receiving the construction free work on a $250,000 home (value not including the land). We have another OIP! — Only in Pittsfield!
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but, lo and behold, in the loaded “competition,” Whitney was awarded the contract: free slave labor from the students in the carpentry program at THS.
From the vast universe of eligible bidders for free construction work, for which only two applied the bid goes to the superintendent’s secretary! The other bid, we learned, was filed by the Office of Community Development for work on a city building.
Free Carpentry Work? Works Fine for Lynn Whitney
Nowhere in the original ad does it state that students shall work for free, but Whitney would be in a position to know that little tidbit, working as she does for Cote. You think there would be more applicants if it were to become routinely known that it includes free construction work? Answer: A resounding yes.
Is that why the GOB hid the innocuously worded ad in agate in the Boring Broadsheet (yes, Cote is a member of the GOB by virtue of his position; no one gets to that rank in Pittsfield without being vetted by Them)? Whitney would know when the ad was placed, exactly what it included, and for the magic price of “free.” Note too that the date of her letter, April 25, is only two days before deadline. Was this done with knowledge that only one other proposal had been received and that hers would receive (a) no more competition and (b) a favorable response.
It gets worse. As the ad states, the work shall not include roofing. However, when the schools awarded the contract to Cote for the free work, the specs on the job were miraculously changed, after the fact, the include roofing. As an attachment to the contract drawn up “between the Pittsfield Public Schools (herinafter ‘District’) and Lynn Whitney (hereinafter ‘Owner’)” work on her manse “shall occur on or about September 10, 2012 in Pittsfield. Said plans may not be changed with a change order request signed by the Owner and the District.”
Hmmm, that latter stipulation seems to have prevented no hurdle to Whitney (Owner) and Cote (District), as we see on an addendum to the contract: “TACONIC HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS WILL BE RESPONSIBLE FOR: Roofing, frame floor system/install subfloor, install steel I-Beams (metal fabrication), install stairs to basement, install hatchway cover, frame exterior/interior walls, sheathe exterior walls, install roof trusses/sheathe roof, install vented soffits/fascias/rakes, install windows and exterior doors, install house wrap, install insulation, install drywall, tape closets and garage, install interior doors, install trim at doors and windows, install hardwood floors and apply baseboards, install kitchen cabinets, install bath vanities, install siding, landscaping (PHS Horticulture), primer walls.”
That short list or work shall be paid for by Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski (hereinafter “Taxpayers” hereinafter-after “Suckers”). “Roofing” is the first item mentioned on the list. Back to the ad put in by Cote, Whitney’s boss: “These projects exclude roofing.”
We’re supposed to think, what, that all this is an innocent mistake or a coincidence of a leviathan order? This being Pittsfield, and this sort of crud having been done to taxpayers without consequences for years, we’re sure “They” never thought they would get caught or be called for this type of outrageous end run.
“They” thought wrongly. First, there’s at least one member of the school committee who is sharp enough and morally sound enough to catch and call out on this sort of thing. His name is Terry Kinnas. Second, there’s now something other than the Boring Broadsheet as a daily source of news and commentary, which means the GOB no longer can control stories like this.
By the way, back the list, outside of roofing, why is the installation of steel I-beams and metal fabrication on the list? That’s not a carpentry matter? And landscaping by “PHS Horticulture”?
Moreover, there was no place on the contract for the city solicitor to attest to its legality. Signatories are the Pittsfield Schoool Committee, “By its Chairperson” [that would be Alf Barbalunga, for those keeping score at home] and “Owner.”
Apparently, this is the way the vocational work has been doled out in Pittsfield for years. We only know about it this time because of the work of Kinnas.
At a school board meeting on Aug. 22, when this matter came before the school committee, Kinnas, and Kinnas alone, noticed that while the original ad specified no roofing, the actual job contract included roofing. He had a problem with that. Then, when Kinnas investigated further, he learned Whitney’s true identity as Cote’s secretary. Whitney wasn’t a Mary Jane Kapanski, someone without connections or clout. She was someone hard-wired into Cote’s office. That didn’t bother Barbalunga, Kathy Yon, Kathleen Amuso, Jim Conant, or Dan Elias, Kinnas’ colleagues on the committee (Mayor Dan Bianchi, also a member of the committee, wasn’t present when the vote was taken). They were all set to rubber stamp this foul deal.
Think about this, ladies and gentleman. Without the voice of one lone crusader fighting for taxpayers, this assault on the moral dignity of the Body Politick would have been signed, sealed, and delivered, and you wouldn’t have known a thing about it. We wonder: How many times in the past have they pulled the wool over your eyes?
Contract 1, Contract 2, Contract 3: Will the Real Agreement Please Stand Up
Kinnas said he met four times with city solicitor Kathy Degnan, and she ultimately agreed with him there was a problem. Instead of voiding the contract, however, she rewrote it to agree to the original specs in the ad! That’s like a student writing her essay first and the the perfect outline, after, to match, like a set of well-crafted dueling pistols. We are not lawyers, though we sometimes have to play one in court, but does anyone else have an ethical if not legal issue with this sort of after-the-fact reverse contractual engineering?
The rewritten contract (Contract #2) was the one that went before our Right Honorable Good Friends on the city council on Tuesday, who were baffled as to why they were dealing with a school matter. The answer to that, it seems, is that because Whitney is an employee of the schools, the school committee can’t vote on it. How’s that for irony: The school committee, which was prepared to vote on it, now can’t, because Whitney works for them, and yet she, as the secretary of the person placing the ad, can bid on and “win” the contract, and that’s OK?
THE PLANET offers some free advice to councilors: Don’t touch this with a 20-foot Wallenda balancing beam, because this is going to come back to bite them hard.
Late word just in before we went to press is that the contract has yet again been rewritten (Contract #3). Version #3 surfaced last night at the school committee hearing, we are told. We don’t know more at this time but shall try to find out. This means that the city council had before it a contract that has since been invalidated, one that had previously invalidated an earlier (and first) version. What a fine mess, as Oliver Hardy would say.
Confused? You have every right to be. It boils down to insider trading, and that cannot be allowed to stand.
City council president, our Right Honorable Good Friend Kevin Sherman, is also a bit baffled, since in his memory (and in fact, in the institutional memory of any of the old timers we asked), the council has never been asked to vote on a school department matters.
In response to a series of questions from THE PLANET, Sherman had this to say, in its entirety and verbatim:
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The council voted to file the item. My understanding coming in was that there was direction from the state Ethics Commission indicating that the City Council should take a vote on the measure despite having never done so in past years. I may have looked confused at times due to the fact that apparently there is no written directive available for viewing. Some concern from the Council was that we should, at minimum, have an understanding of why the item was before us and what our legal role is on the vote. I was not expecting the bidder to rise from the audience to add to the discussion, which may have also caused me to look surprised [EDITOR'S NOTE: SHERMAN REFERS HERE TO WHITNEY SPEAKING FROM THE FLOOR ON THE CONTRACT DURING DEBATE, ALSO AN UNPRECEDENTED PROCEDURE. OUR QUESTION: WHY WAS SHE GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO SPEAK? DID COUNCIL CALL ON HER OR DID SHE DO THIS ON HER OWN OR SOMEONE ELSE'S ORDER?].
Another concern was the fact that the contract before us was not the same as the one originally presented to the School Committee. The change in the contract, as I understand it, was not minor or cosmetic in nature (such as misspellings or administrative items) and therefore it did not seem appropriate for us to be voting on a proposal that was altered from its original state according to the bid that was awarded. It was also my understanding that the School Committee has this item on the agenda tonight (9/27) to clear up any bidding or contract issues and/or to revisit the entire proposal. With the above information, the Council unanimously voted to file the proposal and we will be happy to revisit it if put back before us.
However, it would be helpful to know why the Ethics Commission concluded that this would be a matter before the Council when it has not been in the past. I would not want to vote without knowing the extent of our powers and/or liability. Currently we have no direction on that front.
As far as the specs and bidding, I don’t have specifics on that as I was not involved. I won’t speak for anyone but myself and having not spoken personally with Mr. Cote nor the bidder to this point, I am currently concerned with the perception of conflict of interest on this matter. I assume the Ethics Commission has ruled that it is legal but I have no written evidence of that.
As noted previously, this is the Council’s first time addressing this matter that I can recall as it is typically reviewed and approved by the School Committee.
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[EDITOR'S NOTE 2: IN ANSWER TO OUR QUESTION OF WHY WHITNEY WAS ALLOWED TO SPEAK, SHERMAN THIS MORNING CLARIFIED: "As a point of clarification regarding your editor's note, Ms. Whitney stood and indicated that she could clear up questions being asked by the Council regarding the missing Ethics Commission ruling. I indicated that if any Councilors had questions for her, then she may respond. I concluded that the questions or uncertainty surrounding the Ethics ruling which had already been expressed by the Council constituted questions for her as she indicated she may have the answers. Thus the reason I allowed the conversation." THE PLANET THANKS OUR RIGHT HONORABLE GOOD FRIEND FOR THIS CLARIFICATION].
The underlines are those of THE PLANET’s, meant to highlight the incredible situation that was unfairly dropped in councilor’s laps. They had no advance warning, no written directives, and here they’re being asked to vote on a highly questionable contract. They did right to file it, and again, would do well not to touch this again.
As THE PLANET understands this, in his position as mayor, Dan Bianchi has to sign off on this deal. The city solicitor also has to sign. We urge them to refuse. We urge the city council to reject this on the grounds of failing the smell test. Regardless of the legalities or illegalities, if Whitney wins this bid, it creates the perception of favoritism and a rigged deck.
There is only one just solution: Rebid the work, allowing everyone to know the terms, and see what happens. School department employees should automatically be excluded from bidding. Blow up the whole thing and start from scratch.
We wonder, in years past, how much free labor was awarded from student slave labor for members of the school department and other “connected” people. This is the kind of egregious lack of accountability on the part of Pittsfield Public Schools’ procedures has been frosting taxpayers in the butt for years.
WITH ASPECT OPEN, WE SHALL RAISE OUR HEAD AND ROUND THE ORB IN LASTING NOTES SHALL BE READ.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.