The Wellington Village Council voted to hire lobbyist Coker Consulting last week to represent them in Tallahassee, replacing David Ramba of the Ramba Consulting Group.
Council members were not happy with the services provided by Ramba, who was hired in January. Ramba was earning $60,000 a year.
Village Manager Paul Schofield noted that discussion among council members focused on the lack of contact from Ramba and the number of appearances Ramba had made before the council.
Using the same list of seven respondents considered in January, council members discussed their alternatives at the Nov. 11 meeting.
Mayor Bob Margolis said he thought it was important for the village to have a proactive lobbyist in Tallahassee.
“We, as a council, have to determine if we’re satisfied with the results of our current lobbyist,” Margolis said. “If we are, we continue with that. If not, we have the option to pick another lobbyist. I, for one, have looked at some of the results that were delivered to us, and I’m not real comfortable with the results.”
Vice Mayor John Greene said he had been a strong supporter of Ramba when the council first hired him.
“There’s no question about his qualifications,” Greene said. “The issues we are having are communication issues, getting feedback on results and legislative issues that are important to us.”
Greene asked if they have to go out for a new request for proposals (RFP), and Village Attorney Laurie Cohen said that lobbying services are exempt under the village’s purchasing manual.
“I think that you can choose any of the lobbyists,” Cohen said. “You can renew with our current lobbyist or you can choose one from the list. You did go through the process of scoring, and you do have a ranking here, so that should factor into your decision making.”
Schofield said that in the past, lobbyists had not spoken extensively with council members, but it was their decision as to how they wanted to proceed. “The previous councils wanted to be separated from them,” he said.
Councilman Matt Willhite said he thought the most important function of the lobbyist was to get council members in to see legislators when they go to Tallahassee.
“I think every time I went to Tallahassee, I found that,” Willhite said. “I think what you’re stressing that you have concern about is some of the communication during the off season. I think that’s the only place that we’re having problems.”
Willhite suggested going with the first two choices of applicants and splitting their responsibilities at the same price, but Cohen said that if the council did that, it would have to get the first two choices to agree.
“Whatever you do tonight is going to require staff to go back and communicate unless you simply renew,” Cohen said. “You really are in a position right now that you just don’t know if they will accept it.”
Willhite pointed out that Schofield had said he had concerns about some of Ramba’s work but was satisfied overall.
Councilman Howard Coates said the lobbyist was one area where he tried to stay out of the picture.
“I’ve been one of the council members who chose not to have direct contact with the lobbyist,” Coates said, explaining that he relied on Schofield to do that.
Coates asked Schofield whether he felt that Ramba had performed to the standards of his contract, and Schofield said the only things were not appearing before council the specified number of times and underperforming on grant applications, which Schofield said he would be willing to remove from the contract and reassign if the council were willing to keep Ramba, because grants are not a typical item that lobbyists deal with.
“That was not something that we typically had in it,” Schofield said, adding that a grant strategy had been submitted to the village in the past two weeks.
Although there had been no deadline, Schofield said that he had not anticipated receiving it in the last two months of the contract.
Greene said if there were issues with satisfaction of the contract, he would be willing to make a motion to go with Coker Consulting, which was the second-ranked firm behind Ramba.
Coates invited Ramba, who was at the meeting, to share his view on what had been discussed.
Ramba said that there are many misconceptions about how the legislative process works and when things actually happen.
He pointed out that the only month that either he or one of his associates was not present at a council meeting, or did not meet with council members in Tallahassee, was when the legislature was in session.
“Last year, when you hired us in the end of January, you were already halfway through last year before we even started our first time meeting with you,” Ramba said. “During the session, we provided regular updates.”
During the off season, they had been working on a grant proposal, he said.
“Here’s the reality of this last election,” Ramba said. “You’ve got Rick Scott’s priorities and Amendment 1 passing, so you’re going to have $10 billion over the next 20 years for land. What we need to focus on is trying to do land purchases. That’s where the funds are going to be put into. Had Charlie Crist gotten in, we would have had different priorities up there.”
Ramba said having grant strategies in place is a good idea, although whether it should be in the lobbying contract is another matter.
“We have spent eight months now trying to figure out what the village really needs,” he said. “We think we have an effective grant strategy that we’d like to finalize with staff, and get to you guys so we can apply for those funds, because we don’t believe there’s going to be a huge amount of appropriations that would be available to the village.”
Ramba said his biggest value would be fighting for municipal home rule, which he said the state is trying to undermine.
Greene said he thought that the services Ramba offers might be broader than what the village needs.
“I don’t think anyone for a second is sitting here thinking that your qualifications aren’t strong enough to meet our needs,” Greene said. “I think maybe the contrary. Based on what you’re telling us, maybe your scope of services are much larger than what we need.”
Ramba said he had hoped for a two- or three-hour workshop with council members to decide on legislative strategies. “That has not occurred, and it needs to,” he said.
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig said she was not willing to blame Ramba for the discord on the council. “This discord on the council is making it difficult to deal with anyone,” she said.
Coates said Ramba had been his top choice but that he had questions about his compliance with the contract. “It concerns me when hearing from the manager that there were provisions considered important that were not complied with,” he said.
Greene made a motion to begin negotiations with Coker Consulting, which carried 3-2, with Willhite and Gerwig opposed.