Rather than one firm, the Washington County Board of County Commissioners selected three contractors to handle emergency management in case of a hurricane or similar disaster.
The board separately voted to contract with Wheeler Emergency Management Contractors, Metric Engineering, and True North Emergency Management Services.
Chatter has circulated in the community that Wheeler, the existing contractor, is involved in an FBI investigationâ€“which was referenced numerous times by commissioners and the public during the commission meeting on Thursday, Sept. 21.
“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room,” County Attorney Matthew Fuqua said during a workshop on Monday, Sept. 18. “Everybody knows there’s an FBI investigation going on with Wheeler or some of the people going on with Wheeler.”
The Washington County News has been told about an alleged investigation by multiple sources over the past year; however, none of those sources have been willing to go on the record with that information. Washington County News has reached out intermittently to the FBI in attempts to substantiate the claims with the FBIâ€™s spokesperson from the Jacksonville Field Office stating they can â€œneither confirm nor denyâ€ an investigation is underway in Washington County.
â€œI donâ€™t know what the investigation entails,â€ Commissioner Alan T. Bush said. â€œI really donâ€™t. I asked where it initiated from. All I was told was it was initiated from a contractor.â€
Selection of the trio of contractors came after several other motionsâ€“including selecting just Metric as a back-upâ€“failed due to split votes. Bush recused himself at one point since, as a former Florida Department of Transportation employee, he may still be listed on Metric contracts.
â€œWe just discovered Wheelerâ€™s under federal investigation,â€ Commissioner Wesley Griffin said. â€œI just got my concerns with that.â€
Having a â€œbigger rosterâ€ is â€œnot a bad thing,â€ Bush said.
Not selecting Wheeler â€œat the end of their term would be just a shame that they didnâ€™t finish it out,â€ Bush said. â€œTheyâ€™ve got all the history. Metricâ€™s a great company. True Northâ€™s a great company. I have no problems with that.â€
Firms that responded to a request for proposal for emergency management services were ranked. Wheeler was rated the highest with an average score of 79.3, followed by Metric and True Northâ€“which both scored 77. Wheeler or any other interested firm cannot be precluded from responding to a request for proposals.
During discussion about a second contract, County Attorney Clay Milton said he was concerned the commission was disregarding Wheelerâ€™s proposal â€œwho is the highest-ranking proposer.â€ Commissioner David Pettis said commissioners can legally choose who they want, regardless of scores.
â€œIn my opinion, if youâ€™re not going to go with the high score, you need to expressâ€“on the recordâ€“why youâ€™re going with someone that is not the high score,â€ Milton said.
Pettis said the difference between Wheeler and Metricâ€™s score was â€œless than three points difference.â€
â€œWhat puts Metric over the top would be theyâ€™re our local engineering firm,â€ Pettis said. â€œThatâ€™s what we like, to use our local people. Theyâ€™re readily available.â€
With more than one contract in place, the new contractors could handle work related to new storms, Bush said.
â€œWe want to make sure we donâ€™t inundate one person,â€ Commission Chair Tray Hawkins said.
Wheeler will continue their previous work, such as from Hurricane Michael.
â€œThereâ€™s no way Michael is going to be finished out this year,â€ Hawkins said.
The contractorsâ€™ work will not overlap.
â€œIâ€™m not asking for Wheelerâ€™s contract to be changed in any way,â€ Pettis said.