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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 15, 2016 2 years ago

Bounce back

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Fixing a $500 million department riddled with problems required a hefty dose of discipline. That was just the beginning.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

In 2010, when a major purchasing department scandal engulfed Sarasota County, Ted Coyman was bouncing between Afghanistan, Haiti and Central Africa.

Coyman was a program manager for a contracting company hired by the U.S. State Department to set up bases and compounds for American soldiers. It was demanding, dirty and dangerous work, albeit something for which Coyman was well compensated, he says.

Then Coyman, a contracts manager for the city of Fort Myers from 2006 to 2010, heard about the scandal in Sarasota. Outside audits ultimately found at least 250 deficiencies in the county's procurement department, from lax management to a lack of basic rules and ethics. Millions of dollars in vendor contracts were voided. Dozens of county employees lost their jobs, including longtime County Administrator Jim Ley, who resigned in May 2011. (Ley was never implicated personally in the scandal.)

Coyman, both looking for another challenge and seeking a way back to a job in the States, applied for the county procurement official position. “We were in trouble, no question about it,” says Coyman. “There were a lot of things wrong. We were a laughingstock statewide.”

Coyman has since overseen a significant overhaul of the procurement department — which handles at least $500 million a year in contracts. It's now considered a best-practices county, not the butt of jokes. The department, which Coyman will have run for five years in July, recently won several government purchasing industry awards. Also, Coyman and County Administrator Tom Harmer spoke at the 2015 International City/County Management Association conference, in Seattle, with a presentation titled: “Reaching for Success: The Sarasota County Procurement Turnaround — from Collapse to Recovery.”

A key to Coyman's success was to treat the procurement department like a startup. His list of must-dos included the following: Hire new managers and staff; create an employee training manual and program; establish a procurement code; establish an ethics code and compliance policy; and design an e-bidding program so vendors can go online to bid and win jobs.

There was more. Says Coyman: “We had to do a lot of fence-mending with the vendor community, who thought we were cheaters, and the public, who didn't trust us.”

First Coyman sought employees with high ethics and honesty. Then he looked for experience. Only three people, out of 18 current employees, are holdovers from the scandal era. “We wanted people who could demonstrate they knew what they were doing,” he says.

Coyman says the next-best thing he did was set up a series of weekly tell-all update meetings with every other department. That lasted at least two years. At each phase Coyman says he led by example. “I had to be the role model,” says Coyman. “I had to have the highest commitment to ethics and doing the work.”

One final vital part of the turnaround, says Coyman, is county commissioners and Harman regularly push him to do more and go further. And he constantly pushes his employees. Says Coyman: “There is always room for improvement.”

Trade Up
Sarasota County is scheduled to host the sixth annual Reverse Trade Show and Conference April 22, hosted by the Gulf Coast Association of Governmental Purchasing Officers.

The conference is a networking opportunity for vendors and government officials who hire them, in everything from power washing to roof repair. Officials with an array of governments, including Collier, Lee and Sarasota counties, will be there. At least 500 people are expected to attend.

Beyond networking, adds Sarasota County procurement official Tom Coyman, being selected to host the event five years after a major purchasing department scandal is validation of the unit's reforms. Only a few years ago, says Coyman, vendors and other organizations “didn't want to touch us with a 10-foot pole.”

The conference is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. April 22 at the Municipal Auditorium, 801 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. For more information go to www.gcagpo.org

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon

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