Mayor Donna Deegan approves no-bid contract for a firm that backed her campaign

Mike Langton, shown in a file photo, is president of Langton Consulting, which received a $300,000 no-bid contract to provide grant consulting, federal lobbying and policy development services to the city of Jacksonville. (The Florida Times-Union, Don Burk)
Mike Langton, shown in a file photo, is president of Langton Consulting, which received a $300,000 no-bid contract to provide grant consulting, federal lobbying and policy development services to the city of Jacksonville. (The Florida Times-Union, Don Burk)
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A Jacksonville firm whose owner hosted a campaign event for Mayor Donna Deegan in January has won a no-bid contract worth $300,000 for federal grant-writing, lobbying and policy development after the city determined no other firm in the nation could provide all those services.

The city typically requires competitive bidding, but the Professional Services Evaluation Committee recommended Deegan approve the one-year contract to Langton Consulting without seeking proposals from any other firms.

The unanimous vote by that committee came after the mayor's office said its research showed Langton Consulting is the only firm in the country that could provide all the services in the same contract — a justification that City Council member Nick Howland said "just smells odd to me."

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Langton Consulting contributed $2,500 to the Donna for Duval political committee in April. Company President Mike Langton and his wife, Laura, also hosted a campaign event for Deegan at their home in January.

City spokesman Phillip Perry said time is of the essence in getting a firm onboard to pursue federal grant money in time for upcoming deadlines. He said campaign contributions have no impact on how Deegan makes decisions as mayor.

"Mayor Deegan has said repeatedly that she is not transactional," Perry said. "Thousands of people across the city and all walks of life donated to her campaign because they believed in her vision for Jacksonville, not because they expected something in return."

Council member: "Are we getting the best bang for our buck?"

Federal lobbying is a key part of the scope of services for the contract, but neither Langton Consulting nor any of its consultants are registered to lobby at the city, state or federal levels.

Langton will use Becker & Poliakoff, a firm based in Washington that has Florida offices in 11 cities, to handle the lobbying part of the contract.

Howland, who is chairman of the City Council Finance Committee, said a handful of firms in Jacksonville and even more statewide and nationally could have competed with Langton Consulting for the contract.

"I'm looking at it from a fiscal responsibility perspective," Howland said. "Are we getting the best bang for our buck?"

He said if the city needed to hire a firm because of upcoming grant deadlines, it could have awarded a short-term sole-source contract on a monthly basis while simultaneously inviting firms to compete for a longer contract.

Deegan made winning grants for city initiatives part of her campaign message. She said Jacksonville had been leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table. One of her biggest priorities as mayor is resiliency, a costly endeavor for making the city more resistant to the impact of climate change.

Langton Consulting has worked in the past on city projects, most notably when it helped secure about $11 million in federal grants and state appropriations between 2013 and 2017 to keep the St. Johns River Ferry service running until the Jacksonville Transportation Authority agreed to take over its operation.

Langton, who served in the state House of Representatives from 1985 to 1992, founded his consulting firm in 1981. He is president of the firm, which has three public affairs consultants on its staff, according to the firm's web site.

Langton and his wife, Laura, are longtime supporters of the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates. They were not among the biggest financial contributors to Deegan's campaign, but they hosted an event for her at their home in January. Laura Langton reported it as an in-kind contribution worth $1,673 to the Donna for Duval political committee.

"I couldn’t be more grateful for the support we are receiving from people across Jacksonville who believe in #changeforgood," Deegan tweeted Jan. 28 after the event that featured her speaking to a roomful of people in the Langtons' house.

City ended contract with Ballard Partners for lobbying

After Deegan took office on July 1, her administration terminated the city's contracts with Ballard Partners for state and federal lobbying on July 31. The managing partner of the Jacksonville office of Ballard Partners is Jordan Elsbury, who was chief of staff for Mayor Lenny Curry. Ballard Partners, which is a national firm, also hired Curry after his term as mayor ended. Elbsury and Curry supported Daniel Davis in the race for mayor.

Ballard had been receiving monthly payments from the city that added up to $180,000 a year for federal lobbying. Langton Consulting will get $300,000 over a year for the contract that will cover federal lobbying, grant consulting services and public policy development.

Perry said Langton Consulting's model of partnering with a federal lobbying group has had success by obtaining $27 million of federal and state grants in Key West and $65 million in Ocsceola County over the past 18 months.

"Bringing down more grant dollars and getting our tax dollars back is one of Mayor Deegan's highest priorities," Perry said. "With grant deadlines fast approaching, the administration needed to get this critical work started so that we don't leave money on the table."

The sole-source track for the $300,000 contract eliminated the usual steps taken by the Procurement Division such as advertising the services sought by the city, evaluating proposals submitted by firms responding to the advertisement, and submitting a ranked list to the mayor for selection of a firm.

City regulations only allow that fast-track approach if there is an explanation that justifies dealing with a single entity in making the award. The city cannot avoid a competitive process if there is "more than one potential source" that can effectively provide the service, according to city ordinances.

Brittany Norris, director of intergovernmental affairs in the mayor's office, wrote an Aug. 28 memo to Chief of Procurement Dustin Freeman that said Langton Consulting has the "unique ability" to provide grant-writing support, federal lobbying and public policy formulation.

"Given the unique requirements of these three disciplines and the one-of-a-kind nature of this bundle, Langton Consulting is providing a type of full service for which a comparable offering is not available from any consulting firm, lobbying group, grant writing company, or other government relations company in Florida or elsewhere in the country," Norris wrote.

Langton also wrote an Aug. 28 memo to Freeman that made the same argument while expressing interest in working for the city. He said joint partnerships between grant-writing firms and Washington D.C. lobbyists "are almost nonexistent in the marketplace today."

"Other than the special group Langton Associates has assembled, I am professionally unaware of any other options in the marketplace in Florida or anywhere else in the country that would be available to meet the requirements for services that the city of Jacksonville may be seeking," Langton wrote.

City says market research online used Google searches

The Procurement Division's form justifying the single-source award also asserted that a "comparable offering" to Langton Consulting is not available anywhere in the country. The form says that conclusion is based on Norris doing "exhaustive market research online through various Google searches and databases."

But some firms registered to do federal lobbying also show on their online sites that they provide grant writing services, according to a Times-Union review of some large lobbying firms.

Alcalde & Fay touts its ability to lobby in the nation's capital and also does grant consulting. The firm represents 17 Florida cities and counties including including Miami-Dade County, Seminole County, Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach, according to its most recent report on the federal lobbyist registry. The Jacksonville Aviation Authority also is one of its clients.

"We provide A-to-Z assistance with your grant needs, from identifying those programs that are the best fit to meet a need, writing the application and finally, in mobilizing support for applications that are submitted," Alcalde & Fay says on its web site.

The Ferguson Group also touts both federal lobbying and grant services. "TFG specializes in securing federal funding for clients and has a track record of capturing federal funding through the competitive grant process," the firm says on its web site.

The Ferguson Group's roster of clients for federal lobbying come from across the country. The firm does not show any Florida cities or counties in its current report on the federal lobbyist registry but it represents local governments in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

Perry said the difference between other firms and Langton Consulting is that Langton will provide policy development along with grant writing and federal lobbying.

City Council considers more reporting of sole-source contracts

The city's use of sole-source contract could be getting more attention in the future from City Council.

Howland won the Finance Committee's support on Oct. 17 for adding a requirement that every three months, a city administrator will give a report to the committee on all sole-source purchases exceeding $50,000 that quarter. That proposed addition to city ordinances is wrapped up in a larger revamp of the city's purchasing requirements.

Howland said the Finance Committee doesn't want to slow down the process of awarding sole-source awards because "that would defeat the purpose of single-source contracts. However, we want to review them and increase transparency to make sure we're spending taxpayer dollars wisely."

Perry said the city has done 234 sole-source contracts above $50,000 since January 2022. He said 25 of those were under the Deegan administration.

In regard to lobbying services at the state level, the city will make that award using the standard process for competitive bidding. The Professional Services Evaluation Committee voted Sept. 7 to seek proposals from firms to lobby on state matters.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Jacksonville awards no-bid contract to Donna Deegan campaign backer