Custer Country’s board member recounts steps due to bid dispute

By Cindy Mullet 
Yellowstone Newspapers

  At a meeting of the Custer Country  board Thursday, budget and marketing plans were proposed, several board  positions were filled and the controversy centering on a review by the  Attorney General’s office of the request for proposal process used by the  tourism promotion corporation for the printing of its 2010 Custer Country  Vacation Guide was addressed.

According to board member and secretary  Christie Bury, people took partial information and rumors and filled in  their own gaps concerning the RFP process. The rumors “created their own  legs and grew,” she said, in an interview before Thursday’s meeting.
It  has been interesting as a board member to see a relatively small  issue being looked at through a magnifying glass and going wild, said Bury.
“It is  unfortunate it got this big,” she said. “It didn’t have to.”
Custer Country  is one of six regional non-profit corporations formed to promote tourism in  the state. It represents the 13 Eastern Montana counties and two Indian  reservations that make up the Custer Country Tourism Region of the Montana  Office of Tourism. Custer Country has its headquarters in Forsyth. The  board members who represent the various counties and reservations are all  volunteers.
The controversy over the RFP for the 2010 vacation guide began  with a request from a  Billings man, Edward Henderson, asking for public documents  relating to the RFP process. Edward Henderson’s wife, Cindy Henderson, is  the owner of Cynroc, a Billings advertising agency that provides  advertising placement and Web site design for Custer Country.
In other  years, Custer Country had broken down the publication of the visitors’  guide into pieces that were each worth less than $5,000 and had contracted  with Outlook Publishing, Inc. to produce the guide. By breaking up the  project, Custer Country was not required to put the guide up for  a competitive bid.
That process has been the most cost-effective for  Custer Country, Bury said, noting that the tourism corporation has passed  an audit every year and that other entities follow a similar  process.
Because of questions concerning this process, Custer Country put  out an RFP for the 2010 guide. The RFP ran in the legal section of the  Billings Gazette’s classified advertising section Aug. 19, 20 and 21. The  deadline for RFP submission was Aug. 31. Four firms responded to the ad and  the project was awarded to Outlook Publishing.
“At the time there were  no restrictions on how to do RFPs,” Bury said. “We went on the general  understanding on how RFPs were done. We were not trying to duck and  dodge.”
Cynroc missed the deadline to submit a proposal, and in September  Henderson filed his request for information. The request “ping-ponged” back  and forth between the Attorney General’s office and the Department of  Commerce for several months, finally ending up with the Attorney General  who is reviewing the process, Bury said.
In November Cindy Henderson  hired an attorney who contacted Custer Country requesting documents on  behalf of Cynroc. Because of privacy issue concerns, Custer Country asked  an attorney to review the documents and be the contact for Custer Country  with the Attorney General’s office, Bury said.
At the Custer Country  meeting Thursday, an RFP special committee was formed to make  recommendations following the findings from the review by the Tourism  Advisory Council, the Department of Commerce and the Attorney General. The  committee will also look at Jim Schaefer’s position as executive director  of Custer Country.
It was noted that Custer Country is just the tip of the  iceberg and that all tourism countries will need to follow the guidelines  that will be put in place due to this review.
“Overall, the meeting may  have begun with some tension, but the end product of the meeting was  productive, informative and gained more active members of Custer Country  Inc.” Bury reported.

Published May 12, 2010

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