State kills hurricane ads

A contract for an awareness blitz with a media firm is canceled after two competitors protest.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published May 11, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- With the start of hurricane season three weeks away, Gov. Charlie Crist's administration suddenly canceled a $450,000 contract for a public awareness campaign after two media companies protested the award of the project to a third firm.

The cancellation of the contract in the first year of the post-Jeb Bush era of hurricane readiness comes at an awkward time for Florida's new governor.

As a result, an ambitious state plan to protect people with a bilingual "Get a plan, Florida!" campaign on TV and the Internet has collapsed, and three rival firms in the cutthroat world of media relations are at odds with each other.

The state's storm-preparedness agency, the Division of Emergency Management, awarded the bulk of the contract to Ron Sachs Communications, run by a former journalist who was Gov. Lawton Chiles' communications director during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

A three-member bid review team gave identical grades to proposals by Sachs and a rival firm, Mike Vasilinda Productions, which won the Internet portion of the contract.

Sachs' firm did similar public service work for Bush under a $250,000 contract last year, awarded without competition. His company also produces an annual 30-minute program, the National Hurricane Safety Initiative, and provides it to TV stations in 14 coastal states, from Texas to Maine.

The Emmy Award-winning production is produced with the cooperation of Miami's National Hurricane Center.

"We are well positioned to help," said Michelle Ubben, chief operating officer at Sachs' firm.

But Crist is generally opposed to no-bid or sole-source deals, and wanted other firms to apply for this year's Florida campaign. Two did, and things went downhill from there, leading to a decision late Wednesday to cancel the venture.

"Quite frankly, we didn't need the controversy, not that I agree that there was one," said Tom Congdon, the agency's general counsel, who sent the termination notice to Sachs' firm.

"The people lose here," Congdon said.

Sachs and a subcontractor, CoreMessage, were chosen over two competitors: the Florida Association of Broadcasters, a trade group for TV stations, and Vasilinda Productions, owned by a Tallahassee TV newsman who covers state government and owns a separate corporation that does media work for state agencies.

The choice of Sachs' firm was a loss of prestige for the broadcasters group, which has had a close two-decade relationship with the emergency management agency.

"I'm insulted," said Pat Roberts, the broadcasters' longtime director. "In 20 years, this was the saddest thing I've ever seen."

Sachs said Roberts' group has long had a tight grip on public service programming during storm season, and that Roberts' role in preparedness is overstated.

"Pat Roberts is a sore loser," Sachs said.

Said Roberts: "His greed exceeds anything I've seen in Tallahassee."

Conflict of interest?

Sachs accused Vasilinda of a conflict of interest by owning a production company that solicits business from agencies he covers as a news reporter.

"He has a conflict of interest every time he draws a breath in this town," Sachs said.

Vasilinda declined to comment.

Three years ago, when Vasilinda's ethics were questioned in a news report, Sachs wrote an op-ed piece defending the newsman as "tough, smart, fair and honest."

In their written protest of the contract award, the broadcasters accused two of three evaluation team members of favoring other firms by altering rules during evaluations.

The broadcasters accused Mike Stone, a spokesman for the emergency management division and chairman of the evaluation panel, of a conflict of interest because he used to work with Alia Faraj, who worked at the agency before becoming Bush's communications director.

She now works in Sachs' firm.

Noting that was four years ago, Sachs said: "That's a bit of a stretch."

Congdon, the state's lawyer, said he saw no basis to support the protest allegations.

Vasilinda's protest, which the firm dropped Thursday after the contract was nullified, accused the state of giving too little weight to his experience and his price of $436,000, which was much lower than Sachs' $599,900 or FAB's $600,000. The state limited the contract to $450,000.

Commercial or public?

Roberts said it's wrong for the state to give tax dollars to Sachs to produce a program in which he's allowed to profit from sales of TV commercials and exclusive corporate sponsors.

"It's either a commercial show or a public service show. You can't have it both ways," Roberts said.

Sachs said the program would cost a lot more without paid advertising in it.

Despite losing the state contract, Sachs and Ubben said they would make sure Florida is prominently featured in their national 30-minute program, which recently gained official support from North Carolina.

And amid predictions of a dangerous storm season, Roberts said TV broadcasters would produce 20- and 30-second "Get a plan, Florida!" storm ads for free.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.