The same company has lit up downtown Glendale for the annual Glendale Glitters holiday lights display for the last 19 years. Instead of signing that company for another five years, City Council kicked the can down the road and left the door open for Glitters to have a new vendor in 2021, with potential changes to the holiday display along with it.
After reviewing bids, Glendale staff recommended Council re-sign the city’s longtime Glitters vendor, Mesa-based Christmas Light Decorators, to a five-year contract that gave the city manager the choice to opt out at the start of any year. However, many on Council did not feel staff gave CLD’s only challenger for the contract this year, Scottsdale-based Custom Holiday Lights, a fair shake. In its meeting earlier this month, Council chose instead to re-sign CLD for only one year to sooner give another chance to Custom and any other lights companies wanting to throw their hats in the ring.
Council’s change to staff’s recommendation also will pay up to $230,000 instead of $250,000 to CLD for the light show that in recent years has exhibited 1.6 million bulbs across 16 blocks in and around downtown Glendale. That amount is still up from the $210,000 the city budgeted for the light display in 2017-19 and up from the $158,000 budgeted for the display in 2015-16.
Council wants to use the next year to reconsider its request for proposal process. The evaluation could not only potentially bring a new vendor and potential changes to next year’s Glitters but could change the city’s process for how it chooses which companies to go into business with.
“Our city attorney has gone through and has told us that there is nothing illegal about awarding it to the original group that won the bid, but I’m very uncomfortable with the RFP process and the complacency that I feel has occurred over the last several years with this RFP process,” said Councilman Jamie Aldama, who represents the Ocotillo District where Glitters takes place.
Yucca District Councilwoman Joyce Clark said the city’s senior management assured her there would be an opportunity for “a full and robust Council discussion of the entire procurement process.”
Barrel District Councilman Bart Turner said the city’s RFP process had room for improvement and that an improved process could bring more companies in to compete for the city’s business instead of being dissuaded by the assumption that the contract would go to the previous vendor.
“I would like to see next year that our process is such that we have more vendors actually putting in for this. I would see that as a demonstration that they feel they might actually get the award,” he said.
After staff chose CLD in the RFP process, Custom filed a protest with staff over the process upset that staff had not called any of the references they listed, and that staff had calculated the companies’ final scores wrong because it did not assign the proper weights to categories. City staff rejected the protest, but Custom requested a hearing to appeal that rejection. The hearing was held in May, but Custom was again unsuccessful.
Throughout staff’s internal process, it argued that both not calling references and the erroneous weighting of the scores did not change the end result. Staff acknowledged it miscalculated the scores, but said once they were properly calculated, CLD still outperformed Custom. Staff said that the references category, which count for 20% of a company’s overall score, was only meant to evaluate past work. The RFP panel reviewed photos and documents about each companies’ past work but did not call references for either.
In a June Council meeting, some on Council suggested staff should have called references as part of the process. Two Custom managers who spoke at the meeting, Chad Shimek and Aubree Denekamp, complained that not calling references gave CLD an unfair advantage. The city did not need to call CLD’s past work references, they said, because it had already worked with the city for two decades, a benefit Custom did not have. Staff noted that even excluding the references section, CLD still would have outscored Custom.
In the July meeting, Mr. Aldama echoed Custom’s concern, saying that a business that’s worked with the city for as long as CLD has an inherent advantage in knowing what the city is looking for in the RFP process.
“I feel there is an unfair advantage to anyone else who bids for the holiday lighting in downtown Glendale. There’s been one company who has mastered, absolutely mastered the RFP process,” he said.
Cholla District Councilwoman Lauren Tolmachoff suggested CLD’s track record with the city gives it an advantage in evaluation that a new company cannot have.
“I understand it, too. You know, working with someone that you’re comfortable with and that you know probably generally is going to score higher,” she said.
Council’s July meeting was held as an emergency meeting during a month when Council is normally on recess, with the Christmas lights issue as the only item on the public agenda. Council had originally intended pick up the topic in August after the recess but heeded City Manager Kevin Phelps’ warnings that these companies need to start ordering their supplies in early August and a delay in selecting a light vendor could push back the start of Glitters or increase the cost because of rush fees.
Council chose to sign CLD for 2020 and reexamine the selection process next year in large part because there was not time to re-do the process this year before Glitters.
Ms. Tolmachoff was the only Council member to vote against the one-year contract, instead supporting an idea raised by Mr. Aldama that the city do a straight bid process for this year, which he said would only take about a week. A straight bid is where the city would detail what it needs from vendors for a job and vendors would simply submit the lowest price they could get the job done for. The RFP process involves more in-depth evaluation of companies and bidding companies plans for the project – and the costs associated with them – may differ. She noted that Custom’s RFP bid had a lower price tag, $198,000, than CLD’s at $230,000.
“I think that would be a fair and reasonable way to resolve this, and also in the best interest of the taxpayers,” Ms. Tolmachoff said.
Mr. Turner said that as the city considers new companies to put on the light display, he also hopes companies will come up with new, creative ways of changing the community event.
“I think it’s time that vendors sharpen their pencils and also sharpen their imaginations. I think that Glendale Glitters is a terrific event, but it’s ready to get freshened up,” he said.