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Council airs dissatisfaction over aerial photos contract
By Steve Wehrly, Journal reporter
Controversy over a contract for high-tech aerial photographs of San Juan County clouded the final meeting of the six-person County Council on May 7.
The council approved a $122,000 three-year contract with Pictometry International March 12 to update a set of comprehensive photographs first obtained six years ago. The photos are used for road and land use planning by the Public Works and Community Development and Planning departments, and for various purposes by other government and private agencies.
Councilmen Marc Florenza and Bob Jarman previously voted against the contract and renewed their objections at the May 7 hearing.
When originally approved, the council required Stan Matthews, interim information services manager, who brought the proposal to the council, to obtain one-third of the cost from non-county sources, such as the Port of Friday Harbor, San Juan Island Fire Department and Eastsound Sewer and Water District. Several of the original targets refused, but Matthews convinced other contributors, such as Roche Harbor Resort, to contribute.
After citizens expressed opposition to the plan (especially the "oblique" photographs that provide side views of properties), council members rethought their support for the project and expressed those second thoughts at the council meeting.
They questioned Matthews for an hour, ending the hearing by passing a motion "to contact Pictometry to see what it would cost to get out of the contract."
Matthews testified he was "gobsmacked by the controversy" over the contract, recounting that when Pictometry approached the county proposing to photograph San Juan County in conjunction with their current photography of Whatcom and Skagit counties, he and other county department heads thought it an opportunity to update the county photo portfolio and save money both the county and local residents.
The contract was negotiated by Matthews, approved by Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord's office and signed by Bob Jean, interim county manager, on April 9. The first $16,000 payment was sent to Pictometry a few days later, before Pictometry reportedly signed the contract on April 26.
The council on May 7 questioned Matthews on both the process and substance of the contract.
Forlenza said it was "surprising that $110,000 was suddenly freed up" to spend on the photography; Matthews countered that most of the money was "grant money" that was available to departments such as Public Works and Community Development and Planning for projects related to their general responsibilities. Forlenza concluded the project was a "snafu."
Councilman Rich Peterson was troubled by disclaimers in the contract fine print that said the photographs were "not suitable for hydrographic planning" and were "not intended to substitute for a professional survey." Matthews explained that these were "standard contractual provisions" to protect Pictometry from lawsuits.
Peterson ended his questions clearly troubled, saying, "I fault myself for not asking a lot of different questions" about the proposal.
Council members Rick Hughes, Jamie Stevens and Patty Miller expressed similar misgivings. Hughes said that the project "morphed" on him. The "whole process has been ebbing and flowing, and I haven't been with the flow," he said.
Stephens, chairman of the council, added, "I have a problem with the process; this should be an audited." Councilwoman Miller said simply, "I am embarrassed."
Gaylord had testified at the hearing that ending the contract and recouping the $16,000 would be difficult. In legal parlance, Gaylord said, the county had entered into a "binding contract" that was "partially executed", giving Pictometry rights to the money and "full performance" unless it agreed to modification.
On May 10, Gaylord said that Pictometry told him they have begun work on the contract, would not return the $16,000 and expected full payment and full performance by the county. Both sides, however, agreed to continue to negotiate on possible changes in the scope and price of the contract, he said.