Maine panel hears Iris Network appeal on lost contract

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PORTLAND — A ruling on an appeal of a Maine Department of Labor decision to end a more than 35-year relationship with The Iris Network is expected by the end of next week.

The Portland nonprofit, which provides education, training and rehabilitation services to clients who are blind or have low vision, is challenging a June 1 DOL decision to award Catholic Charities of Maine a contract for services that had been provided by The Iris Network.

The appeal was filed Aug. 25 with the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

“Invalidating the contract award is essential to avoid serious harm to the public interest in government procurement of high quality and cost-effective vision rehabilitation services,” Iris Network Executive Director James Phipps said in an Aug. 26 press release.

Spokesman David Heidrich Jr. of the DAFS said the appeals panel of three state officials must decide within 15 days after an appeal is heard.

Phipps said The Iris Network contested “several unlawful and fundamentally unfair errors” made by the DOL in selecting Catholic Charities, and that the bid from The Iris Network was $226,000 less, at $1.1 million annually for the next five years.

The Catholic Charities of Maine bid scored 1.7 points better on a 100-point scale.

The “most significant scoring irregularity” came in evaluating the economic impact of the competing nonprofits’ budgets for the last two years, Phipps said.

In arguing for The Iris Network, attorneys Charles Dingman and Michael Smith told the appeals panel of three that the 4.2 points lost by the Iris Network violated state procurement laws.

“The relative size of the bidders does not help determine which bidder can provide goods or services with the best value for the taxpayers of the state of Maine,” Dingman and Smith said.

The loss of points on economic impact also erased almost all of the five-point advantage The Iris Network gained by submitting a lower annual bid that was based in part on lower administrative fees.

Phipps also contested other scoring “irregularities” he said “amounted to fundamental unfairness and an arbitrary and capricious award.”

If the appeal panel decides in favor of The Iris Network, the DOL contract would be invalidated and the department would have to correct errors before awarding a new contract.

The DOL and Catholic Charities of Maine have declined comment during the appeal process, but Catholic Charities of Maine spokeswoman Judy Katzel said in June the nonprofit is interested in expanding its mission.

“We have a very strong track record of providing high quality services for children, it just made sense to look to expand the services for adults,” she said.

Once the appeal panel has made its decision, it will notify Interim Director Gilbert M. Bilodeau of the Bureau of General Services. Bilodeau then must notify all parties within 10 calendar days.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.