The nonprofit business management agency representing the borough business improvement district stumbled badly in an attempt to solicit marketing services, and will re-bid the work.
By Matt Skoufalos | July 22, 2022
In the past half-year, Partnership for Haddonfield (PFH), the nonprofit management group that oversees the borough Business Improvement District (BID), has gone through a number of changes.
Marciante’s first order of business involved “a re-visualization” of PFH inside and out. A major part of its organizational communications strategy involved soliciting an outside agency to supplement the work done by its in-house professionals.
In the $273,500 PFH 2022 budget, $50,500 is allocated for marketing and public relations; of that, some $8,000 was already paid to Suasion Communications Group, its legacy communications vendor. The Partnership published a request for proposals (RFP) for public relations services on April 28. Bids were to be unsealed publicly at 3 p.m. on May 18.
But according to eyewitnesses at the event, after Marciante received the bids from Haddonfield Borough Clerk Deanna Bennett, he prepared to leave the room. It wasn’t until he was asked whether the bids would be read aloud, as is required procedurally, that Marciante unsealed them and revealed the quotes.
Three entities bid on the RFP: Segal Associates of Haddonfield, Magnum Integrated Marketing of Collingswood, and the Borough of Haddonfield itself, which put forth its own part-time communications officer, Joana McDonnell, for the work.
Segal Associates CEO Devon Segal said she was confused by the proceedings, perhaps most of all because the borough itself was bidding on work for which PFH had solicited quotes from private-sector businesses like hers.
“We’re headquartered in Haddonfield, and we truly love the business district,” Segal said. “Whether or not we’d win the contract, we truly believe that whoever wins should honor the nature of South Jersey and the beautiful elements that are here, because we’re getting ready to go into a really difficult economic downturn.
“We thought that this role and this contract, and whoever receives the bid, should be a solid group,” she said. “We would hope that it was someone who was very qualified.”
Segal said she was troubled by the limited number of responses to the RFP and the relatively limited window in which responses were solicited, although the RFP process did meet its 20-day statutory minimum.
When she followed up twice with PFH to inquire about the status of the applications—and whether the borough was allowed to bid on its own work—Segal said she received no clarification from Marciante about the process.
So she took her questions to a work session of the Haddonfield Borough Commissioners, who were advised by borough solicitor Salvatore Siciliano not to comment on the process while it was ongoing.
Segal asked the same questions at the public comment portion of the next regular meeting of the borough municipal government—namely, “Is it ethical for the borough to respond to the PFH bid?”—and again received no response. When she likewise got no answers at the June 22 PFH meeting, Segal verbally rescinded her bid for the work, a decision she later walked back in e-mail correspondence with Marciante.
“I was just confused as to why the borough couldn’t respond to the questions,” Segal said. “Our team had requested clarification via e-mail. We would have been happy to learn more in a different setting, but got no response.”
Magnum CEO Frank Palmieri, a Haddonfield resident, said he too was surprised to discover the borough had also bid on the work from PFH. In conversations with Marciante about the needs of PFH and what the organization was looking for in its solicitation, Palmieri said he was surprised to discover that the group appeared to be soliciting quotes for work on an as-needed basis, and not to retain any firm in specific.
“[Marciante] said the objective of the RFP is to understand the pricing for a list of items on an as-needed basis, so if they were to onboard a firm for a single project, they would know what it costs,” Palmieri said. “That is an RFI, request for information, not an RFP. I told him, ‘Your incumbent is charging you two grand a month for PR initiatives; it seems like you’re looking for a full-service agency.’”
Palmieri also said he’s never seen a local government bid on contract work put forth by another entity that falls under its jurisdiction.
“It’s completely out of scope,” he said. “It’s a conflict of interest, without a doubt.
“But the key to this is, to me, they should have just given it to [McDonnell] to do the work,” Palmieri said.
“Why waste people’s time?”
Magnum specializes in destination marketing and the gaming industry; Palmieri said he responded to the RFP mostly because he lives in Haddonfield and wanted to support his hometown.
But he also noted that the approach put forth in the RFP—which solicited support for a lot of written collateral, including press releases, a quarterly newsletter, and marketing campaigns—felt outdated and under-funded.
“We work all over the country with other people on other properties in other towns, and we see what works and what doesn’t work,” Palmieri said. “It’s all about data, selling the events, and telling people what’s going on in town.
“When you look at the CRDA (Casino Reinvestment Development Authority) in Atlantic City, their budget is $1 million,” he said. “Wildwood is $1 million. Vegas is $125 million. This town is looking to spend $24,000 a year.
“They should be spending their media dollars on paid search and display ads to tell people what’s going on in the town,” Palmieri said. “It’s not only that they don’t know how market the town, they don’t have the money to.
Moreover, Palmieri said that “nobody works a la carte in the agency business anymore,” and that if PFH “just wanted to price out items, [it] doesn’t need an agency to create a poster.”
Haddonfield Borough Administrator Sharon McCullough said the decision by PFH to outsource communications services from a firm in piecemeal fashion was made “so that should [Marciante] be too busy with other duties and needed assistance, he could bring people in; or, if it was something larger, they could do it.”
McCullough also noted that the RFP “was also set up so that they could award it to multiple people if they wanted.”
While Marciante was settling into his role, PFH continued to rely upon Suasion, with which it had contracted on a $2,000 monthly retainer through April 2022.
But McCullough said that “Suasion was not necessarily doing all of the things that they could to assist Michael in his job to get the information going out,” and as a result, “he started to rely on [Borough Communications Officer] Joana [McDonnell].”
That was problematic, McCullough said, only because McDonnell is a 20-hour-per-week employee, and working for PFH ate up hours that she would normally dedicate to her duties for the borough.
“The partnership relies on [full-time] borough employees in a number of capacities,” McCullough said.
“We’re management; it’s part of our job. The difference with Joanna is she’s a 20-hour-a-week employee.
“As we started doing things, she would be volunteering her time, or it would be us using our time for those services,” she said.
McCullough said that submitting McDonnell for the PFH role “was not an intention of taking anything away,” but rather, “it was us trying to get the equity back so we were both getting the fair share of her services.
“It was not meant to get anyone else not awarded,” McCullough said.
Asked why PFH didn’t simply award the work to McDonnell directly—under local contracts law, she could have performed less than $17,500 of work before triggering the threshold necessary to file an RFP—or construct a shared-services agreement instead of bidding on the RFP, McCullough said the borough participated in the process in the interests of transparency.
“We, in being transparent to the public, put the document together to say, ‘Here’s what you’ve been doing so far, here’s what it cost us,’” McCullough said. “You’re going to be comparing that to other folks. We’re saying, ‘You have been relying on our services, and we’re going to tell you what the cost of that service is.’”
McCullough also insisted that McDonnell could work for both groups without running into any conflicts of interest, although she noted that in such a circumstance, “Joanna would not be working for the Partnership in that situation.
“She is our employee; she would be doing our work first,” McCullough said.
McCullough also said that the borough commissioners were right not to answer Segal’s questions about the RFP process because PFH had not awarded any vendor the contract, and the matter was still under deliberation.
Haddonfield Mayor Colleen Bianco Bezich, a local government lawyer and the liaison between PFH and the borough commission, likewise said that, despite her expertise in the negotiation of public contracts such as the RFP, she was prohibited from commenting while the matter was still under deliberation.
“Until the process plays out, I’m a board member of that organization,” Bianco Bezich said. “My duty is to let the process finish.
“When you’re an interested responder and you have an objection, that’s a legal distinction,” the mayor said.
Nonetheless, Bianco Bezich also said that she would recuse herself from any vote on the RFP so as to allay fears of suspicion about the process, but expressed her displeasure with the way the process unfolded.
“This [PFH] board is volunteers,” she said. “They don’t have backgrounds in local government. I really feel that they are now subject to criticism that at the end of the day isn’t even warranted.
“Process aside, business relationships aside, these are people who live and work downtown, pay their taxes, and they didn’t sign up to be thrown to the wolves when they haven’t made a decision yet,” Bianco Bezich said.
Likewise, the New Jersey Division of Local Government Services (DLGS) saw nothing untoward about the borough government bidding on work proposed by an entity it oversees.
Lisa Ryan, Communications Officer for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA), the agency that oversees the DLGS, said in an e-mail that “there is nothing the Division is aware of that would prevent a municipality from providing this type of service to a BID.”
Ryan added that Haddonfield wouldn’t be able to establish a shared service with the PFH because, as per the Uniform Shared Services and Consolidation Act, business improvement districts are not subject to the Local Authorities Fiscal Control Law.
Asked whether hiring a borough government employee could inadvertently open the door for a potential conflict of interest between the borough government and PFH, Ryan said any such concerns “would be a local issue to resolve.
“The Division of Local Government Services is not an arbiter for municipal conflicts,” Ryan wrote. “If there is an ethical issue that needs to be addressed, a party can file an ethics complaint with the Local Finance Board that will be reviewed against the Local Government Ethics Law to determine the validity of the complaint. If valid, the Local Finance Board would conduct an investigation and make a determination.”
Ryan further clarified that, although PFH doesn’t fall under the Local Authorities Fiscal Control Law, the business improvement district does answer to the Local Finance Board in matters of ethical conflict.
Finally, in a special meeting on July 13, PFH rejected all three bids for the communications RFP and decided to re-frame the request for future solicitation.
In an e-mail, Marciante explained that this was done because “the nature of the RFP had changed substantially.
“Three entities applied,” he wrote. “One bid was deficient; they did not include their business license from the state of New Jersey in their packet by the deadline. One bid need not be awarded, leaving us with one bid to consider. With only one entity to consider, the RFP can’t be awarded, thus changing it. Hence why all bids were rejected.”
Marciante did not elaborate on why “one bid need not be awarded,” writing only that “all parties concerned were informed later that week,” and PFH “will be going out for RFP in the coming weeks.”
PFH executive board member Bob Hochgertel of King’s Road Brewing said that although the bid process was undertaken with the best intentions from all parties involved, it was important to start over with a clarified approach.
“The makeup of the town has changed,” Hochgertel said. “It used to be a quiet retail destination; now there’s restaurants, a winery, a brewery, a distillery on the way. The needs of how you manage and market have changed.
“Add the layer of complexity that is COVID, and growing pains; very simply, Haddonfield’s needs as a town and the needs of the Partnership, how you market that has changed,” he said.
“I think everyone did the best thing they could do,” Hochgertel said. “I think there were some missteps, but they were innocent on all parts. Everyone involved, all these constituencies, have the same intent and goal: to help Haddonfield market itself.”