Tardiness could cost city

The city of Augusta missed a deadline this week to answer allegations that its purchasing practices are unfair to some and wrongfully favor others, putting it in danger of losing a costly legal battle.

 

The city's response to the lawsuit filed on behalf of the Association for Fair Government and three companies was due Wednesday, according to the court records. When no answer was filed, the plaintiffs' attorney, Robert Mullins, filed a motion Thursday seeking a default judgment.

If U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood finds the city in default, any fight over the merits of the lawsuit would be over. The only question would be the amount of damages, if any.

The city's attorney, Chiquita T. Johnson, insisted the answer to the lawsuit wasn't due until Friday, and one was filed later that afternoon. It contests the right of the plaintiffs to pursue a case in federal court and denies all allegations of wrongdoing.

"Based on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, you don't count the first day, the day the suit is filed." Ms. Johnson said, adding she had 20 days plus three more under the rules.

Mr. Mullins, however, said the city's attorney is wrong.

In the Southern District of Georgia, a lawsuit must be physically handed to the defendant to be valid. When a lawsuit is served that way, the defendant does not get three additional days, Mr. Mullins said.

Other attorneys who practice civil law in federal court in southern Georgia confirmed that all lawsuits must be served directly on the defendant, and defendants then have 20 days to answer. The deadlines are set by the court clerk's office and posted in court records.

Even if a defendant is found in default, attorney Kirk Gilliard said, he can petition the court to reopen the case.

Mr. Mullins' lawsuit against the city and Procurement Director Geri Sams was filed Feb. 13. It seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys fees. The lawsuit alleges the city and Ms. Sams use the city's materiality provision inconsistently and unfairly. That provision requires bidders to meet every bid requirement exactly or their bids are automatically rejected.

The city's answer claims the provision is enforced equally.

Of about 100 projects reviewed, 87 bidders were rejected for errors in their proposals, but 97 bidders with errors were not rejected, the Mullins lawsuit alleges. The plaintiffs contend that contracts are awarded so arbitrarily that the plaintiffs' right to equal protection has been violated. The city denies the allegations.

The lawsuit also alleges Ms. Sams doesn't follow city code in obtaining quotes, doesn't retain requisition forms and doesn't maintain a list of bidders.

On behalf of Ms. Sams, the city's answer denies any wrongdoing. As to maintaining a list of bidders, Ms. Sams developed a vendors database, which is not the same as a list of bidders, according to the city's response.

Reach Sylvia Cooper and Sandy Hodson at (706) 724-0851.

THE BACK STORY

- Legal action against the city over the way it does business began in August 2006. Thompson Building Wrecking Co. won a ruling that the commission could consider its bid to demolish a building. Although it would have saved the city more than $250,000, commissioners rejected Thompson.

- In January 2007, Thompson and others filed suit in federal court, challenging the use of a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program in deciding who gets city business contracts. A federal judge ruled the program unconstitutional, and the city settled the lawsuit.

- Other lawsuits followed as the Association for Fair Government challenged the fairness of how the procurement department does business and the cost to taxpayers.

- The Augusta Chronicle joined the lawsuit against the city, alleging Open Records requests for documents have been met with unreasonable delays, costs and conditions.