COVINGTON -- County commissioners unanimously voted to put the lawn care maintenance contract out to bid at a special called meeting Tuesday night.
Commissioner John Douglas made the motion not to renew the contract with Durden's Lawn Maintenance and to instruct the administrative services department to issue requests for proposals for landscape services so that "a new contract can be awarded at the earliest opportunity." J.C. Henderson seconded the motion.
Commissioners voted 3 to 2 on Feb. 5 to approve a five-year contract for Durden. Douglas, Henderson and Levie Maddox were in favor and Commissioners Nancy Schulz and Lanier Sims were in opposition because they wanted to put the service out to bid. Douglas said later that the chairman had yet to sign the contract and no county funds have been paid to Durden in 2013.
Following the Feb. 5 meeting, the Citizen examined the business license file for Durden's Lawn Maintenance at the Department of Development Services and discovered that owner Billy Durden was operating without a valid license. In addition, Durden's operated without a license from 2002 to 2006, during which time he held the county contract for lawn care.
Durden said he did not know he needed a business license during those years because he operated out of his home.
Chairman Keith Ellis said that he examined county records on Durden's Lawn Maintenance and what he found contributed to his calling a special meeting Tuesday night. He said he distributed that information to commissioners. The Citizen has requested the information commissioners received. The Citizen also filed an Open Records request with the county earlier this week for information related to the cost of lawn care.
Ellis said Wednesday that he noticed a "huge spike in the cost of lawn care" up until 2010, when the cost leveled off, and realized a lot of money was being charged for services other than the standard grass cutting and weedeating, such as spreading pinestraw.
While he said these could have been legitimate charges, "how it spiked over the years raised my eyebrows."
"I think the majority of citizens would like to have seen it rebid," he said.
Ellis noted that, "If Durden wants to bid and everything's in order, he will not be prohibited."
Ellis said the county will handle lawn care in house until the contract is awarded.
Ellis started Tuesday's meeting by assuring citizens that commissioners are "striving to do the very best job they can in the short time we've been in office. Some of us are brand new to this. We're doing our best to gel as a team.
"As chairman, I take full responsibility for some of the things that have happened in the past," said Ellis, who started his first term in January. "I want to ask you to be patient with us as we work together to form that team."
Ellis said the county has fine staff members and "if anybody is to be scrutinized, it should be us, the elected officials."
Ellis also promised to "do as much homework for you as I possibly can to make sure the assignment is complete, as a teacher would students."
"I pulled my own open records request and I found out a lot of information and I'm going to try to do that every time, so I put that square on my shoulders," he said.
Ellis said he will be available at 4 p.m. on Mondays prior to regular county commission meetings on the first and third Tuesdays of the month to sit down with citizens and discuss any concerns. He invited the public and commissioners to come by for what he is calling the "Chairman's Chat."
"We're trying to instill a team and I really believe that this group is one that you'll be happy with and proud of in the future," he said.