PAXTON — Ford County Board member Randy Ferguson shook his head and sighed at one point during this week's meeting, frustrated that the Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department's embattled administrator did not see any issue with the awarding of a $123,000 contract to the husband of an agency employee.
"Everything we're doing here seems like it's coming back to common sense," Ferguson said. "You can't award a bid to anybody that's related to anybody that works for you, especially when it's for $100,000. Those are things you just can't do. It's got to be written (in the law) somewhere."
Ford County Board members pressed Public Health Administrator Doug Corbett for answers Monday about the controversial contract, which was awarded in 2011 for the installation of solar panels on the health department's offices in Paxton and Watseka.
Throughout, Corbett defended his agency's actions.
"We had to go through this process following laws," Corbett said.
Ferguson, meanwhile, raised concerns about the bidding process, including the perception that it gave a competitive advantage to the company that ended up receiving the contract — CMS Renewables Inc., Collinsville, owned by Stanly Clark, husband of health department spokesman and Freedom of Information Act officer Julie Clark.
Among the issues previously reported in the Paxton Record and The News-Gazette was that the public bid notice for the project was worded so that the bidder was required to install a specific brand, Lifeline Energy. According to the health department, CMS Renewables is the "installation arm" of Collinsville-based Day & Night Solar, a licensed distributor of Lifeline Energy solar panels.
Day & Night Solar officials had been in contact with Corbett about the project prior to bids being sought, according to information obtained by the Paxton Record.
When Ferguson asked Corbett how he determined which solar panels to install, Corbett said he consulted a student at Kankakee County Community College, who helped him "look at what one panel does versus another type of panel."
Ferguson then asked why neither Corbett nor the board of health chose to also consult an engineer. Ferguson added that hiring an engineer could have helped the agency avoid any perception of wrongdoing.
"Do you see where that would send out a huge flag to everybody?" Ferguson asked.
"Yes, but we're also members of a small community, and people are related to one another," Corbett responded. "That part of it — what people do with their livelihoods — we don't really have control over that."
Corbett also responded to Ferguson's questions by saying he could not find any state law applying to multi-county health departments that requires engineering services for contracts. Corbett also mentioned that he could not find any law applying to his agency that says bids must be sought for a project, but the health department solicited bids anyway "to make sure we were getting the product we wanted at a fair price."
Corbett claimed earlier in the meeting that Iroquois County State's Attorney Jim Devine, who serves as the health department's legal counsel, advised him that the soliciting of bids would not be required for the solar-panel project.
Devine strongly denied Corbett's claim when reached by the Paxton Record on Tuesday.
"This is completely false, and he knows it," Devine said. "I would have remembered doing something that significant, giving advice. And my advice would have been making sure the bid process was done. And if I'd have known Julie Clark's husband was one of the bidders, I would have advised him on that, too."
Ford County Board Chairman Rick Bowen asked Corbett whether the conversation with Devine was documented in any way, and Corbett said it was not, since it was during a telephone call.
Kirk Allen of Kansas, Ill., who co-owns the Edgar County Watchdogs website with John Kraft of Paris, Ill., read a prepared statement, challenging the board to hold Corbett accountable for his actions.
The group has published numerous stories on its website, disclosing financial information about the health department through the Freedom of Information Act, including information about the solar-panel project.
Allen challenged the county board to "prove our reporting is wrong, have an open and honest discussion of the facts, be willing to be intellectually honest with yourself, and take the time to read the laws and apply it to each and every issue raised.
"I believe we're only beginning to see a trickle of what is coming."