By Cindy Mullet
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