Caterer Seth Mias threatens lawsuit in “Landfill House” bidding SNAFU
NORTHAMPTON – The lawyer for Leeds caterer Seth Mias has threatened to sue the Board of Public Works if it doesn’t accept Mias’ $316,800 bid on a city-owned home at 981 Park Hill Road, located near the city’s regional landfill on Glendale Road.
The city purchased the home for $545,000 in 2009 as part of a legal settlement with a group of landfill neighbors, and has been trying to sell it ever since. When the city’s initial efforts to market the property fell flat, the minimum bid price was twice reduced, and now sits at $290,000.
The BPW, during a meeting on July 28 which at times veered out of control, voted to reject all five bids (pdf) to buy 981 Park Hill Road and start the process over again. The vote came after an impassioned plea by Richard J. Tremaine, whose bid of “$1,000 over highest bid, up to $359,000″ had been previously rejected by city procurement officer Joseph M. Cook upon advice of the Massachusetts Inspector General. The sealed bids were opened on July 26.
In his Aug. 3 letter to BPW Chairman Terry Culhane, obtained by Northampton Media, lawyer Steven Samolewicz wrote that Mias’ offer of $316,800 was the highest “qualified” of five sealed bids opened June 26 to buy the home. Samolewicz said his client did everything according to the book, and that the board erred in rejecting all five bids.
“My client expended a significant amount of time and expenses in the preparation of his bid and feels that the Board acted unfairly and capriciously in the way they handled the bid process,” Samolewicz wrote. He stated that the BPW should have postponed a vote until more than four of the seven members were present, given the “significance of this bid.”
Further, Samolewicz wrote, “I believe it is appropriate for the entire Board to reconsider its vote” and meet again to accept Mias’ bid. “Should the Board elect not to vote on a motion to reconsider on this matter, my client is prepared to seek any and all legal remedies available to him, including possible violations of State Procurement Laws.”
Cook said Friday he had seen Samolewicz’s letter and was conferring with City Solicitor Elaine M. Reall. Cook defended the board’s action, and said that the BPW’s vote to throw out all the bids and start over was a valid one. The city has already sent a new request for bids to be published in the state’s Central Registry, Cook added. The new bid opening is scheduled for Sept. 13.
During the July 28 BPW meeting, Tremaine said that his Realtor, Kathy Borawski, had assured him the $1,000-plus maneuver was proper, based on a conversation she said she had with the city’s real estate agent, Lisa Darragh of Jones Group Realty. But Darragh, who was at the meeting, denied ever having such a conversation or advising Borawski such a bid would be acceptable.
“I was never asked if that (procedure) was legal,” said Darragh. “That is something that did not happen.”
Undeterred, Tremaine offered to call Borawski on his cell phone, saying she was returning from a trip to the beach with her family but would be glad to speak to the board. The chairman declined the offer, but Tremaine dialed her number anyway, and in a moment had Borawaski on speaker phone. Although her voice was hard to hear, Borawski seemed to reiterate that Darragh had told her it was OK to bid $1,000 over the highest bidder.
Other than Tremaine, none of the other bidders – Mias, Brett Simmons, Sherri Collins and Mary Ellen Facteau, who bid between $292,900 and $295,500 – were there to watch the proceedings.
Before any votes were taken, Chairman Culhane explained the problem with Tremaine’s bid, saying, “That’s clearly not a conforming bid.. . .It’s crystal clear from the statutes that we cannot accept that bid.” He said the board had two options: accept the highest legitimate bid, Mias’, or throw all the bids out and start over.
Board member James M. Dostal said the BPW was obligated to accept Mias’ bid as the highest approved offer. “I don’t think we’re standing on good ground if we rebid this,” he said. But his motion to accept Mias’ bid as the highest certified offer was voted down 2-1, with board members David W. Shearer and Gary Hartwell voting no. BPW members M. J. Adams, Michael Parsons, and Rosemary Schmidt were absent.
Culhane abstained, explaining later that the chairman only votes in case of a tie. (Cook, a lawyer who formerly served as the city’s assistant city solicitor, told Northampton Media he had never heard of such a rule. And Robert’s Rules of Order, which city officials use as a guide, does not restrict a committee chairman from voting. Culhane admitted after the meeting he had not read Robert’s Rules.)
After voting to reject all five bids, the board voted 2-1 along the same lines to rebid the house.
Mias, who said he and his fiancée loved the home, and had done everything possible to submit a good bid, including a hefty down-payment, bypass of inspections, a swift closing, and two banks lined up to finance the loan. “What else am I supposed to do?” he told Northampton Media.
And while he still wants the house, Mias said he would look at other homes, although he might rebid on the house.
“I’m disappointed,” he said. “It would have been a nice place to raise our kids.”
Tremaine was also disappointed at the way things went, but not at the chance to resubmit a valid bid.
“I feel the process will be fair, and I’ll have a chance to make a bid,” said Tremaine, who was recently hired as the associate director of the U.S. Veterans Administration Medical Center in Leeds. He said he, his wife and four kids were living in a Hadley hotel, and were eager to find a home.
Tremaine said he and his family fell in love with the Park Hill Road house. One reason he liked it, he said, was that there was a first-floor bedroom. Tremaine has one artificial leg.
Tremaine also said he had done his due diligence researching potential health risks living close to the landfill, and felt comfortable he would not be putting his family in harm’s way.
Asked after the BPW’s July 28 vote for her reaction, Mayor Mary Clare Higgins said she didn’t want to undermine the board, which faced a difficult decision. “I don’t want to second-guess the board,” she told Northampton Media.
“But I’ll be happy when the building gets sold and when somebody’s living in it,” said Higgins, who has publicly predicted the house would sell well above the $292,000 asking price.
Cook has urged the BPW to raise the minimum bid this time around to $359,000, the price Tremaine had set as his ceiling. Cook also floated an idea that nobody, including Tremaine, thought was worth pursuing: renting out the Park Hill Road home to Tremaine and his family while the bid process plays out again. He said both ideas were designed to get the highest possible sale price for the house.
The four-bedroom, 3,000 square-foot home at 981 Park Hill Road has been the subject of much controversy over the past several years. Its previous owners, Linda Hiesiger and Ellen Tobiassen, bought the home in 2006 for $486,250, and soon became vocal anti-landfill activists. The two were frequent callers to a state-mandated odor hotline, which required that trained “odor sniffers” investigate each complaint—a service which has cost the city $320,000 to date.
The Samoleweicz letter and other issues relating to the bid process will be discussed when the board meets Wednesday, Aug. 11, at 5:30 p.m. in the Department of Public Works offices at 125 Locust St.
That gives the board one last chance to adjust the asking price or tinker with the bid package language before it is published in the Central Register on Aug. 11.
A crowd is expected.