|Turf wars at North Hill golf course|
|Tuesday, 24 February 2009 22:54|
Golf is known as a gentlemen's game, but negotiations over the future of North Hill Country Club have been anything but genteel. The nine-hole municipal course on Merry Avenue is operated by a private management company, Johnson Turf and Golf of Weston. When Johnson's 10-year contract ended last year, town officials chose a different company. But Johnson isn't going away quietly.
Citing their track record managing North Hill and other municipal golf courses around the state, Johnson challenged the bidding process and claimed the town's choice was unqualified.
Following a series of legal filings and a successful injunction in Middlesex County, Johnson remains in control of North Hill Country Club, likely for the duration of the 2009 golf season. Frustrated town officials remain locked in an unhappy marriage, and Calm Golf Inc., the Rockland-based company awarded the new bid by the town, is stuck in legal limbo.
It's a scenario not unfamiliar to Doug Johnson, owner of Johnson Golf Management. Through his past negotiations, court filings and e-mails to town officials, Doug Johnson hasn't been shy about defending his turf – in and out of court.
"We have always gotten along with you, and I hope when the time comes the truth comes out about why I'm now considered a bully," Johnson wrote in a Dec. 30 e-mail to Recreation Director Gordon Cushing, (obtained through a public records request.) I'm the bully who took a dump of a golf course and clubhouse filled with drunks and druggies and invested to make it into a first class facility."
In his court complaint Johnson argued that the town's decision was"arbitrary", "in bad faith" and that in choosing Calm Golf, the town was engaged in "the exact type of favoritism which Massachusetts courts have long held to be impermissible in the awards of public contracts."
Following the injunction, the town is now barred from awarding the contract to Calm until the legal issues are resolved. Duxbury has decided not to fight the injunction, so Johnson will run the course under the terms of his last contract until Dec. 31, when the contract is expected to be re-bid and the process will begin anew.
The five-year contract to North Hill was put out to bid twice, October and January, according to Town Manager Richard MacDonald. The first time all bids were rejected because MacDonald determined that the state's bidding law had not been properly followed. For the second bid all five prospective companies submitted two sealed envelopes. The first contained the company's resume and qualifications for running a golf course. The second contained the price the management company would pay the town for the contract.
Three evaluators used the information in the first envelope to narrow down prospective bidders to Johnson and Calm. When the price bids were opened, Calm came in higher, at $512,500 over five years. Johnson's bid was the lowest of all the bidders at $420,000. The higher bid translates into more money for the town.
The process for evaluating the bids is very regimented, said John Britten, a local golfer who was part of the second evaluation process.
"It's like putting a square peg in a square hole," he said. "We had to adhere to the categories we were given."
Evaluators were given a set of criteria and asked to rank all prospective bidders from "unfavorable" to "highly advantageous." Johnson and Calm obtained the highest scores, and MacDonald, as chief procurement officer for the town, picked Calm because they were the highest qualified bidder.
In a complaint filed Jan. 21 with the Middlesex Superior Court however, Johnson claimed that the town had conspired against him.
â€œDuxbury and [The North Hill] Committee decided that regardless of price and qualifications they were not going to hire Johnson Golf under any circumstances,â€ the complaint read. â€œThe evaluators and members of the Committee and the Chief Procurement Officer and others conspired to reject all the proposals as a pretext to deny award of the contract to Johnson Golf.â€
In his affidavit filed in court on Dec. 26, 2008, Doug Johnson said unpopular changes made by the club were a factor in his not getting the bid.
"A vocal group of permit holders at North Hill have taken exception to certain policies which have been implemented by my staff," Johnson wrote. "I believe [members of the North Hill Advisory Committee] and other permit holders were instrumental in structuring the 2008 North Hill RFP to favor themselves over the interests of the Duxbury Taxpayers and the general public."
Town officials vigorously dispute those assertions. The process was fair and done according to state bidding laws, said Duxbury Town Counsel Robert Troy.
"He claimed everyone was conspiring against him, which was completely fabricated," said Troy. "We're required to take the highest price proposal."
Johnson's first request for an injunction, which claimed the town rebid the project in a deliberate attempt to thwart the company, was denied by a Middlesex Superior Court judge.
"We definitely showed the court that was the furthest thing," said Recreation Director Gordon Cushing.
"That was just laughable."
Questioning Calm Golf
In granting Johnson's application for a preliminary injunction, Justice Herman J. Smith showed sympathy for Johnson's claim that Calm Golf should not have been so highly rated by Duxbury's evaluation team.
"It is incredible to this court that Calm Golf was rated highly advantageous by at least one evaluator in each category," Smith wrote in the Feb. 2 decision. He pointed to the fact that Calm submitted financial statements that were not audited, and that the company did not carry pesticide insurance and that it did not own its own equipment.
"In light of Calm Golf's insubstantial assets... it seems unlikely to this Court that a reasonable person could conclude that Calm Golf had the minimum equipment inventory required by the RPF," Smith wrote.
In the complaint, Johnson described Calm Golf, Inc. as a company whose total management experience amounted to a four-month contract, and that its total assets were $1,336.92 at the end of 2006. Johnson claimed in an e-mail to the Clipper on Monday that the company's current assets amount to $169.
"Charles Lanzetta conspired with Calm Golf and others to provide false information to the Town of Duxbury in the hopes of securing the contract at North Hill," Johnson's complaint alleged.
Calm's attorney, John Geary of Kingston, said Monday that Calm is simply a new company formed by Charles Lanzetta and Anthony Morosco, who together have more than 80 years of experience running golf courses in addition to Calm Golf's four-month stint at Abington's Strawberry Valley Golf Course.
"It's a question of whether you're looking at a brand-new corporation or the gentlemen behind it," he said.
Britten said that Lanzetta's name is well known in golf circles.
"Charles Lanzetta is one of the most respected golf names in all of Massachusetts," he said.
In a brief filed in January on behalf of Calm Golf, Geary and attorney David Edge argued that there "is no requirement that a town make a distinction between the actual legal entity presenting the bid and the actual principals who will be running the golf course."
Geary also said that Lanzetta is president of another company that has been managing the Rockland Golf Course since 1978.
Atty. Troy believes the judge exceeded his authority by acting as the evaluator of the bid proposals. He cites a portion of the ruling which points to Calm's lack of pesticide insurance, an issue Troy believes could have been resolved in the working up of a contract.
"He does not have the right to substitute his evaluation," Troy said of Judge Smith.
Troy said the town is looking at filing a motion to disqualify the judge, since "he seems to already have made up his mind."
"Drunks and druggies"
Troy pointed out that Duxbury officials had been complimentary of Johnson's work at the course.
Cushing, the town's rec. director, agreed. "They do an excellent job; the course is in terrific condition," he said.
Johnson has built a new clubhouse and septic system at the course, although Cushing pointed out it was required in the last contract. Although the town was not privy to the exact price of the clubhouse, Cushing estimated it cost between $400,000 to $500,000.
"Economically I think it was a great deal for the town," Cushing said.
When asked what Johnson meant by "drunks and druggies" comment Cushing said he had no idea. He said the tone of the communication between Johnson and the town wouldn't prevent him from working with the company until the contract is put out to bid again.
"There's certainly no hard feelings on our end," he said. "We're all professionals and we're going to do what's best for the town."
Asked to explain his comments, Johnson said that the conditions at North Hill "were disgraceful" when he took over the facility. "The transformation of North Hill under our management is well established," he wrote in an e-mail this week, and pointed to the positive comments of Cushing as well as private golfers.
In another e-mail, Johnson told Cushing that he was "planning to notify the newspapers as to what has transpired over the past five months, because I know some people will be spreading their spin."
Johnson said this week that he did not mean to imply that Cushing or MacDonald has engaged in any particular spin.
"My reference is to the people who have harassed my employees over the past year, telling them that they would be losing their jobs because Johnson would never get another contract in Duxbury."
For now Johnson will continue to run the course for at least another season.
"At that point we said it's February, the snow's melting, we should get the course up and running," Cushing explained.
MacDonald said the town can live with the result of the injunction, and that his primary goal was to make the course available to residents.
According to the judge's injunction, the terms of the old contract remain in effect, meaning Johnson will pay $100,000 to the town for this year.
That amount is higher than what either Johnson or Calm would be paying had they been awarded the most recent contract, a fact that pleases town officials, and should please local golfers who might have otherwise faced higher greens fees.
As for Calm Golf, Geary said that his client has not made a decision as to what it will do next, preferring to wait until the court case is resolved
For his part, Johnson says he is just trying to make sure his company gets a fair shake.
"Evidently some people have the perception that I am a bully," said Johnson. "I am not a bully. I simply wanted a fair shot at earning a contract at Duxbury based on my company's qualifications."