Welcome, Freedom Fair bidders: City moves on plans to open annual fireworks show, festival to event organizers

The City Council has directed the Tacoma Economic Development Department (TEDD) to draft a Request for Proposal (RFP) that would...

The City Council has directed the Tacoma Economic Development Department (TEDD) to draft a Request for Proposal (RFP) that would effectively open the door for event organizers to compete for the annual Freedom Fair Festival, according to discussion during yesterday’s council study session.

If the RFP, which could reach the council in two weeks, is approved, city staff would begin to receive bids from event organizers as early as September.

“We routinely contract for services,” said Councilmember Mike Lonergan, “and I don’t think this should be any different.”

Councilmember Tom Stenger, who agreed the process of contracting for the event should be open to the public, was stunned that the item was up for discussion. “I thought we agreed last year that this would be a competitive process,” said Stenger, who recalled that the council had directed the city’s economic development committee (EDC) to prepare the RFP last year. “Did we not discuss this?”

City Attorney Steve Victor confirmed that staff created a draft RFP last year. However, according to Victor and TEDD Assistant Director Martha Anderson, the EDC decided on options other than the RFP.

“I’m shocked that the economic development committee would go the other way,” Stenger replied.

At issue is an arrangement between the city and the Tacoma Events Commission (TEC) — a non-profit organization that contracts with former city councilmember Doug Miller to serve as the group’s executive director. TEC organizes an annual fireworks festival to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday — an event known as the Freedom Fair Festival. Under ordinance, the city serves as the event sponsor and provides $30,000 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.

That arrangement, however, 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.

Yesterday’s discussion was meant to address that speculation.

“If we don’t do this,” said Councilmember Lonergan, “there’s going to be a cloud hanging over this whole process indefinitely.”

Miller objected to the idea that he profited from the event. “Festivals and events aren’t wildly profitable,” he said. “I’ve invested my own money at times, and the Tacoma Events Commission struggles each year to survive.”

Miller added that allegations that TEC profited from an agreement to produce the festival for the city were “hurtful.”

He also spoke of the financial risk associated with hosting the festival this year, which included the arrival of tall ships along the Thea Foss Waterway — an event that drew an estimated 1 million people, according to event organizers. “We put our necks out there,” said Miller. “A renewal of our contract would be viewed as a ‘thank you’ for our work and investment this year.”

During yesterday’s study session, TEDD assistant director Anderson presented a draft version of an ordinance that included an amendment designed to formalize a relationship between the city and the festival’s event organizer — as well as open the door to other event organizers. That amendment included the following language: “The City Council may by resolution approve a permit agreement with the same non-profit entity on an annual basis until such time as the City Council, in its sole discretion, is no longer satisfied with the performance of that non-profit entity.”

But the amendment also illustrated the informal nature of the agreement between the city and TEC. Since the city decided to control permitting for the event in 1981, the council has renewed its agreement with TEC on an annual basis. “In a sense, it’s been a series of one-year agreements,” said city attorney Victor. “There has been no specific policy.”

Instead of an amended ordinance, the council favored drafting the RFP.

Councilmember Julie Anderson called the current agreement “too passive,” and argued that the process of selecting an organizer to produce the event should be open and competitive, detail the services the city is purchasing, and establish a regular evaluation to measure the organizer’s performance. “This is really a purchase of services,” said Anderson. She also indicated that by setting a precedent and “having a business practice that makes sense,” other vendors might be able to reach established performance benchmarks, thus opening up the selection process.

Councilmember Rick Talbert was satisfied with the current arrangement between the city and TEC. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” he said. He called this year’s Freedom Fair and Tall Ships Festival one of Tacoma’s “greatest, shining moments,” and disagreed with councilmembers seeking to respond to critics by revamping the agreement. “Because people say things doesn’t mean we need to react,” he said. “I’m comfortable with the relationship. Most Tacomans would probably say we were crazy to even tinker with this.”

Still, Councilmember Lonergan voiced the most support for opening up the process to outside bidders — if only to quiet critics and prove that TEC was doing its job. “What’s wrong with opening it up?” he asked. “Let’s see who else can come up against [TEC’s] 25 years and the tall ships. 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.’”

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