Freedom Fair contract won't change hands

The City of Tacoma is expected to continue its arrangement with the Tacoma Events Commission (TEC) to produce the annual...

The City of Tacoma is expected to continue its arrangement with the Tacoma Events Commission (TEC) to produce the annual Freedom Fair Fourth of July celebration, according to a presentation during the Nov. 1 council study session.

“It’s a very, very successful event,” said Scott Nagel, a veteran event producer and president of Birchhill Enterprises, and a member of the four-person review committee responsible for judging two proposals to produce the Fourth of July festival. “From what we could determine, the Tacoma Events Commission has a very successful formula and produces this event for the community at a very moderate price.”

A non-profit organization that contracts with former city councilmember Doug Miller, who serves as the group’s executive director, TEC has produced the event since 1981. Under ordinance, the city serves as the event sponsor and provides $30,000 in cash, police and emergency services, and use of the public right of way. Historically, TEC and the city have operated under an agreement not open to outside contractors and event organizers, and the council has renewed its agreement with TEC on an annual basis.

That changed this summer, when the council directed the Tacoma Economic Development Department (TEDD) to prepare the RFP that would effectively open the door for event organizers to compete for the event.

Two RFP’s were received from TEC and Gateways for Youth and Families.

Last month, the four-member review committee — which included Metropolitan Parks District Chief Planner Lois Stark, Seattle Supersonics and Seattle Storm Vice President of Business Development John Croley, Kathy Scanlan of Cedar River Group, and Nagel — scored the proposals based upon History, Stability, and Operational Requirements (15 points), Event Production (25 points), and Event Marketing and Advertising (10 points).

Gateways for Youth earned one point in the first category, 25 points in the second category, and three points in the third category. The organization earned an overall score of 29 out 50 possible points.

TEC earned 15 points in the first category, 23 points in the second category, and nine points in the third category. The organization earned an overall score of 47 out of 50 possible points.

“Gateway for Youth is not an event producer,” Nagel told councilmembers, adding that awarding the Freedom Fair contract to the organization “would be like starting at the beginning and going straight to the very top.”

He added that Gateway for Youth didn’t have the necessary experience associated with producing a festival or outdoor event, specifically as it related to the financial risks therein.

Most councilmembers agreed with the committee’s findings.

“I am pleased with the way that staff put this together,” said Councilmember Mike Lonergan. “We found capable people to look at this, and this is very much above reproach. Some people saw this as an attack on the Tacoma Events Commission. But it was important to do this, and it was a very positive process.”

That was a departure from Lonergan’s comments this summer. During a study session July 12, Lonergan expressed concern over the city’s failure to open the event to other festival producers. He favored opening up the process to outside bidders — if only to quiet critics and prove that TEC was doing its job. “We routinely contract for services, and I don’t think this should be any different,” he said during the July 12 meeting. “What’s wrong with opening it up? Let’s see who else can come up against [TEC]. It’s a seal of approval and recognition of what [TEC] has accomplished. It places a high burden of proof on somebody who would step up and say, ‘We can do this better.’ If we don’t do this, there’s going to be a cloud hanging over this whole process indefinitely.”

Indeed, the arrangement between TEC and the city was challenged in 2003, when Spiro Manthou ran against Miller (who also served as TEC executive director then) for a spot on the council. At that time, one of Manthou’s campaign workers applied for a permit to host a community celebration July 2-4 at the same location as the Freedom Fair.

The city denied the permit.

Questions lingered regarding Miller’s dual role as TEC head and city councilmember — and whether Miller benefited from the arrangement. Furthermore, rumors circulated that the permit request was politically motivated because of the link between Manthou and the campaign worker requesting the permit.

Manthou went on to unseat Miller.

The RFP process was meant to address any concerns over a conflict of interest.

During yesterday’s meeting, Mayor Bill Baarsma expressed support for the committee’s findings. “The economic development department put together a stellar group with no interest at all in the outcome,” he said. “I’m quite pleased as well.”

The City Council will vote on an ordinance to approve a three-year contract with TEC, with the possibility of two one-year extensions, in the next few weeks.

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