In perhaps the most hotly contested political issue in the city of Sherwood since the purchase of the former North Hills Country Club and golf course, the debate rages about what path Sherwood leaders ought to take with respect to which company will provide 7,000 city households electricity for the next 20-40 years. For the past 50 years, those homes have been serviced by North Little Rock Electric.
It is a fair possibility the issue will continue to be a major factor at the next meeting of the Sherwood City Council which is slated for Monday at 7 p.m. in the city council chambers.
One of the latest people to jump into the debate is Sherwood’s Charlie Woods, a former Pulaski County school board member who lives within the region of town served by North Little Rock Electric. He also has been a long-time employee of Entergy, which is also trying to vie for Sherwood’s electric contract.
In a letter to the editor recently send to the newspaper, Woods said Alderwoman Marina Brooks should remove herself from NLR Electric/Entergy/First Electric Coop discussion about which utility should get Sherwood’s next electric contract.
In his letter to the editor, Woods, who lives at 210 N. Devon St., provided more than just his opinion that his personal preference is Entergy. Woods’ emailed letter provided four attachments that contained a significant amount of information showing the connecting between the city of North Little Rock and Cinergi Construction Inc., which is owned by Alderman Brooks’ husband, Tom Brooks. The documentation Woods provided also shows that Mrs. Brooks is also Cinergi’s chief financial officer.
"This letter includes several attachments which conclusively document the forthcoming statements," Woods wrote. "The first document is from the City of North Little Rock (NLR) in response to a Sherwood citizen’s FOI (not me). That official reply from NLR tabulates NLR’s payments to Cinergi Inc, a local company run by Tom Brooks and his wife Marina, who is an alderman on the Sherwood City Council. Cinergi has been employed for years by NLR as a contractor for sidewalk and curb work."
The first attachment to Woods’ letter to the editor shows that from 2004 to as of October 2012, North Little Rock has paid Cinergi Inc a total of $3,240,729.42.
"Yes, that is approximately $3.24 million," wrote Woods. "Sidewalks are profitable!" The highest annual total was approximately $558,000 in the year 2005. Payments in 2012 year to date already total $265,000, according to Woods.
"The Brooks family makes a lot of money from the City of North Little Rock," states Woods’ letter.
In his letter, Woods listed the amounts the city of North Little Rock has paid Cinergi Inc. from 2004 to 2012, which are: 2004, $328,582.50; 2005, $557,501.34; 2006, $128,461.50; 2007, $404,010.50; 2008, $304,022.99; 2009, $486,377.83; 2010, $333,596.77; 2011, $432,962.99; 2012, $265,213 so far.
In the documentation provided by Woods, it showed the last payment paid by the city of North Little Rock to Cinergi Inc. on Sept. 28 was in the amount of $5,928 (Reference Number 00164741). Cinergi Inc.’s vendor code with the city of North Little Rock is 000569.
In his letter, Woods expresses frustration that Cinergi was awarded a no-bid contract by the North Little Rock City Council in 2009 to work on that city’s sidewalks.
"The second attachment seems just as interesting," wrote Woods. "I am not an attorney; but it seems to be a NLR city ordnance sponsored by NLR Mayor (Patrick) Hays, which officially allows the city to award this contract in succeeding years to Cinergi Inc. without them having to compete in the open market via competitive bidding. That’s a convenient deal that I’ll bet other NLR contractors would love to enjoy. How (or why?) is such a "sweetheart deal" justified in an age where competition is the norm? Is this "back scratching"?"
Wood’s also provided the newspaper with a copy of North Little Rock Ordinance 2009-40 where the council approved a contract with Cinergi Contractors in which the council waived formal bidding requirements and authorized an extension of the then-current sidewalk construction contract to allow Cinergi to implement the 2009 sidewalk program, declaring an emergency.
"Whereas, Arkansas Code 14-58-303 requires city purchases exceeding the amount of $20,000 to follow statutory procedures of local advertisement and opening of sealed bids which may only be waived in exceptional situations were bidding is deemed not feasible or practical;" reads the ordinance.
The ordinance continues, "The city has been very satisfied with Cinergi’s performance and work under the contract and Cinergy has agreed to complete work for the 2009 Sidewalk Program at the same unit prices reflected pursuant to their bid under Bid Number 06-2691." According to the ordinance, the prices charged in the 2009 contract were the same as its 2006 sidewalk program contract pricing."
The ordinance continues, "It is hereby found and determined that the adoption of this ordinance is immediately necessary to insure the proper and orderly growth of the city of North Little Rock, Arkansas, and is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public health, safety and welfare; therefore, an emergency is hereby declared to exist, and this ordinance shall be in full force and effect from and after its passage and approval."
The other attachments provided by Woods reveal that for the past 17 years the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for Cinergi Inc has been Mrs. Brooks. Woods said Brooks has no business voting on a contract which has a financial impact on the family business.
"This is the very same Marina Brooks who has been pushing hard for Sherwood to renew the existing franchise agreement with NLR for the next 40 years despite NLR rates being at least 10 percent higher than the lowest bidder (Entergy)," said Woods. "No matter which company is best, this is a Conflict of Interest for her."
Wood’s also provided documentation to the newspaper that Alderman Marina Brooks has been the chief financial officer for Cinergi Contractors since 1995. The documentation came from www.linkedin.com. The documentation also lists Brooks currently as "alderman at City of Sherwood Arkansas; CFO at Cinergi Contractors."
In his letter, Woods points out he works at Entergy. But his contention is that Brooks is voting on the electric contract when her company financial benefits from the city of North Little Rock.
"So the issue I raise in this letter is not which company to choose, but rather whether an alderman with such huge personal financial ties to NLR should even vote on this issue," Woods said."Let’s repeat the main points for clarity: (1) Revenues from NLR to Brooks have totaled about $3.24 million; (2) those contracts are conveniently awarded without competitive bidding; and (3) Marina is CFO of the company with tremendous potential to continue to prosper by securing NLR’s favor."
Woods continues, "I strongly believe that a major Conflict of Interest exists; and that Ms. Brooks should take the honorable and ethical path by simply recusing herself from voting on this issue. I imagine that the Arkansas State Ethics Board would offer the same opinion. In such situations, even the appearance of favoritism casts a dark shadow over the integrity of the whole City Council; so it is also incumbent upon the other seven aldermen to insist that normal ethical standards be upheld."
In his letter, Woods admits he works at Entergy. But he stresses he wants Sherwood to go along with his employer as the electric provider because it will cost him less in his home electric bill.
"In honesty, I should disclose to your readers that I am an employee of Entergy. That’s why I paid more attention to this issue than perhaps otherwise," Woods said. "But I am also a Sherwood citizen and a current NLR electric customer who became upset at the prospect of paying higher electric bills. I know how to figure electric rates; and I estimate that choosing NLR will cost me (my Sherwood home) about $250 more per year, or $3,000 over 20 years! The truth that I work for Entergy has nothing to do with the solid and well documented facts presented in these attachments. Follow the money! $3.24 million is a lot of money to lose by not pleasing Cinergi’s employer (NLR) who is writing those checks! Given that, how could Marina Brooks dare to vote against NLR?"
Woods concludes, "The solution is simple, folks. A sitting alderman should never use her influence to favor a bidder who is paying her own company millions of dollars. Marina should withdraw completely and not vote on this issue. Just let the other seven City Council members decide. They are competent to make a wise decision."
At the September meeting of the Sherwood City Council, Brooks was one of three alderman who supported a measure for the city to begin negotiating a new electric contract with NLR Electric. Besides Brooks, Alderman Tim McMinn and Charlie Harmon supported the ordinance. Aldermen Ken Keplinger, Kevin Lilly, Mary Jo Heye, Steve Fender, and Toni Butler voted against the proposal.
With a 5-3 vote against the ordinance, if one of the five who voted against it changes his or her mind, that would make the vote a 4-4 tie and Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman has come out publicly saying there is a strong probability she would favor supporting going with NLR Electric for several reasons.