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County's Contract for Future HR Outsourcing Raises Questions


BRADENTON — A recent purchasing agreement between the Manatee County Government and a local human resource and payroll services company is raising questions about whether it was appropriate and whether procurement standards and procedures were adhered to in its execution. Further complicating matters, the individual who owns the LLC that the county awarded the single-source contract is personally known to commissioners and has contributed to many of their campaigns.

The procurement agreement was approved by Manatee County Commissioners as a consent agenda item (number 16) on the Aug. 22 agenda. According to the attached cover sheet, the action requested was for board approval to execute Agreement No. 23-R082620JEHuman Resources Assessment and Consulting Services with Secure HR, LLC, in the amount of $18,750.

The item cover sheet included in part, “Agreement No. 23-R082620JE is in the not-to-exceed amount of $18,750; however, given the possibility for additional Human Resources Assessment and Consulting services at the request of the County, County Administration is requesting funding be directly tied to the Board of County Commissioners-approved departmental budget…”

The additional language seemed to suggest that while the agreement requested for approval by the BOCC would initially be for the stated $18,750, there was a likelihood that additional services and costs may be incurred under the approved agreement with Secure HR LLC in the future.

Secure HR LLC is owned by a local resident and former candidate for State Representative, District 70, Dennis Cooley. 

Cooley also notably founded an online "news” site that billed itself as a “fair and balanced” conservative voice in local news.  While Cooley served as publisher, the site published numerous articles that touted the successes of certain county commissioners from early 2021 through mid-2022.

Articles published by Cooley’s website covered topics such as a settlement agreement between Michael Barfield and Manatee Commissioners Kevin Van Ostenbridge and James Satcher, Van Ostenbridge's GoFundMe campaign for victims of an apartment fire, Van Ostenbridge’s appointment to commission chair, the beach access/parking debate, the outcome of the Vaccinegate investigation, op-eds by Commissioner George Kruse and other items.

To view some of these examples, please click the following highlighted dates. May 7, 2021, May 12, 2021, October 28, 2021, November 18, 2021, December 15, 2021, July 1, 2021, June 18, 2021, July 1, 2021, July 16, 2021

On June 1, 2022, Cooley announced he was stepping away as the publisher of Manatee Herald due to entering the State Rep. District 70 race. In a follow-up report, Cooley shared that the publication would gain a new publisher, Bob Spencer of West Coast Tomato.

Cooley, or businesses associated with Cooley, also appear in the campaign finance reports of multiple county commission candidates. In 2022, Cooley contributed to the campaigns of Mike Rahn, Amanda Ballard and Jason Bearden. In 2020, Cooley donated to Kruse and Van Ostenbridge including $500 from Cooley as an individual, as well as $500 from an insurance brokerage, Bridgely Key Options, of which Cooley is a managing member. 

Several public Facebook posts from 2020 and 2021 further suggest that Cooley was not only a campaign donor, but may have played a more active role in some commissioners' campaigns, and may have even shared a personal "friendship" with at least one current county commissioner. 

Outsourcing HR
In February, then-commissioner Vanessa Baugh raised the topic of "serious issues" with the county’s HR department, telling commissioners that she had been approached by a "gentleman in Manatee County that owns an HR business." Baugh told her colleagues that the individual was interested in helping the county address its issues with the department and also shared that the individual "had a willingness" to "take over HR altogether."

At the time, County Attorney Bill Clague cautioned commissioners that hiring an outside entity to run the public organization's HR department required greater research. Clague said he was unsure whether the board could simply "sole source" such an arrangement and advised commissioners to seek guidance from the county’s purchasing office to determine if a competitive bidding process was required.

The topic would not be raised again until April. While the item was not on the meeting agenda, Baugh requested the board's support to expedite actions to outsource HR functions to a private entity

Again, County Attorney Clague reminded commissioners of the purchasing ordinance. Clague suggested language for a motion to include commissioners directing county staff to move forward with securing HR consultation services utilizing the required procurement process.

“I don’t know specifically how that’s going to work, whether that is going to be a sole source, request for proposals, or something else,” Clague said in April.

In June, during a budget work session, commissioners received a presentation from Gallagher Benefit Services, Inc. County procurement official Jacob Erickson told commissioners that in response to the board's request to look into outsourcing HR, he had brought in Gallagher to provide a presentation. The county had an existing contract award with Gallagher Benefit Services since November of 2021, and the consultant company had previously performed HR services for the organization. 

However, after the presentation by a representative of Gallagher had concluded, certain commissioners questioned whether the company’s philosophy and business operations aligned politically with commissioners.

Click the video below to replay the commissioners’ discussion following Gallagher’s June 13 meeting presentation.

At the conclusion of the discussion on the item, Van Ostenbridge said, “I'm looking for bold action and I am looking for quick action.”

“I’m very concerned about putting this out to the full procurement process,” Van Ostenbridge added regarding sourcing a different HR consulting firm than Gallagher. “I prefer the transparency (of the full procurement process), however, the timeline the procurement process is going to require is a major concern of mine.”

Despite being in attendance during the June work session, and despite his early comments to commissioners concerning the county’s procurement ordinance and its requirements, County Attorney Clague provided no comment or advice.

Commissioners appeared to agree with the concerns expressed about Gallagher’s business operations and whether they were in political alignment with members of the board. Commissioner Jason Bearden expressed his desire that county administration seek a local HR business to provide consultation and to take over certain functions of the county’s HR department.

Van Ostenbridge added that, while he did not always agree with the opinions of former commissioner Baugh, in the instance of her suggestion that county administration should outsource the functions of the HR department, he was in agreement.

Without spoken objections by any commissioners against directing county administration to move forward with a potential single-source agreement with a private HR services company other than Gallagher, the meeting discussion concluded with affirmative direction to administrative staff to proceed.

Timeline of Response

Following the June 13 meeting, county administration and procurement staff initiated proposal acceptance from Dennis Cooley’s Secure HR LLC.

Public record emails obtained by TBT show that on June 15, county purchasing official Jacob Erickson emailed then-acting county administrator Lee Washington to inform him that he had put together an HR assessment and consulting proposal to “help Secure HR LLC put together a proposal for the county evaluate.”

Erickson included in his email to Washington, “The proposal structure is almost identical (if not, less than) what we ask for in our other Requests for Proposals. I’ve also attached Exhibit 2, Proposal Response Requirements – RFP No. 23-TA004673SB as an example to show that this is not an extraneous exercise and is standard practice based on the county’s established policies and procedures.”

Concluding the email by asking whether Washington had any objections to his planned course of action to engage with Secure HR, Erickson informed Washington that he was prepared to move forward as soon as the next day.

On July 6, Washington sent an email to commissioners.

“Commissioners,” Washington’s email began. “We contacted Secure HR LLC shortly after the Work Session on June 13 and provided them with the HR Assessment and Consulting Proposal Format on June 19. We are still awaiting the completion of the application packet, which the owner stated we would have by the end of this week. Once we have the requested information, we will review the firm’s qualifications (per Procurement regulations) and schedule the Sole‐source meetings to bring them aboard.”

Records show that on the morning of July 20, Erickson emailed county administration again. The email was directed to Washington, Deputy County Administrators Courtney DePol and Charlie Bishop and the county’s CFO, Sheila McLean.

The email was marked as of “high” importance and included the subject line, “HR Assessment and Consulting Services Due Diligence Response.” 

Erickson attached HR proposal response documents before writing, “It should be noted that Secure HR, LLC did not provide the filing indicating a Joint Venture or a statement indicating they are not a Joint Venture; a fully completed (signed and notarized) Exhibit 1 – Affidavit of NoConflict; and a completed W-9. Attached is the email I sent to the primary representative requesting these documents.” 

Later that same afternoon, Erickson followed up on his previous email informing county administration that Secure HR had submitted the outstanding documents.

“Their proposal is now in compliance with the form of proposal,” Erickson concluded.

On July 24, Washington—presumably after having reviewed the procurement documents and proposal submitted by Cooley/Secure HR LLC—responded to Erickson with some alarm.

“$150k for 2 months of work… what am I missing? What’s his scope that would justify these figures? What’s next in this process?” the short correspondence read.

Erickson replied the same day to Washington, confirming that he too shared in Washington’s concerns.

“I have the same concern especially since the payments are not tied to any deliverables. They are just due at the end of the consecutive months. Sheila and I met with Courtney (DePol) and Charlie (Bishop) on Thursday of last week and I received direction to send Secure HR, LLC the previous HR consulting/assessment scope and have them modify it,” Erickson explained to Washington.

“The next step would be to negotiate and further refine the scope and have Secure HR, LLC tie payments to specific deliverables,” Erickson’s email continued. “The previous assessment was $60,000 initially so there is a large gap between these two figures.”

Washington acknowledged Erickson’s email reply, telling the procurement official to hold off on the next steps until DePol and Washington could meet to discuss. At the time, Washington had taken an effective absence from the county and had appointed Deputy DePol temporarily in his place during his absence.

DePol was filling in for Washington in the role of acting administrator between roughly July 20 through Aug. 3 when commissioners accepted Washington’s resignation and appointed Bishop in the role of acting.

Two days following Washington’s email to Erickson questioning the proposal submitted by Secure HR for $150,000 for “two months work,” DePol emailed county commissioners an update and CC-ed county administration, Attorney Clague, and CFO McClean.

“Commissioners, I wanted to provide a quick update on outsourcing Human Resources. We are expecting to have an updated scope and pricing back next Monday, July 31, and will provide another update to the Board as soon as it is evaluated… Per Board direction, Procurement has been in discussion with a local company, Secure HR to look into privatizing Human Resources. Secure HR provided an initial proposal on July 19 to perform Phase 1, an Audit of HR, in the amount of $150,000… Due to the limited information provided on July 19, we requested Secure HR to further refine their scope of services and identify specific deliverables tied to each of the payments over the 2‐month performance period.”

DePol concluded the emailed update by informing commissioners, “We have requested the revised scope and pricing by Monday, July 31. Once proposal pricing is finalized, we are required to post a Notice of Intent to Award for 5 business days. If no additional proposals are received, we will be able to bring the negotiated proposal to the Board for final approval. If we do receive other proposals, we will be required to review those prior to bringing to the Board.”

Records show that two days later, on July 28, Erickson, again directed an email to county administration regarding its negotiations with Secure HR. In the email, Erickson attached a “revised proposal” for review.

“I have the Notice of Intent to Award already prepared so once I get Admin approval, I can post and start drafting the agreement,” Erickson advised.

A “Notice of Intent to Award” is required to be advertised for five business days when the county intends to award a sole-source or single-source contract agreement exceeding certain thresholds.

According to the county Procurement Administrative Standards & Procedures Manual issued in May 2019 and not revised or updated until September 1, 2023, any purchase above category 1 or 2 must be advertised with an Intent to Award.

Purchasing categories are defined by the total amount of an intended purchase, purchases below $25,001 would qualify as either a category 1 or 2 purchase and would not require the publication of a Notice of Intent to Award.

After considerable back-and-forth, on August 2, DePol sent a final email to commissioners explaining the final proposal reached with Secure HR.

In the email, DePol explains that procurement had received an “updated scope” and “abbreviated HR assessment” in the amount of $18,750. This is the final awarded agreement approved by commissioners on August 22 as a consent agenda item.

To view a PDF version of internal emails related to negotiations with Dennis Cooley and Secure HR LLC for services and assessments, click here.

Procurement and Justification

Page 40 of the Procurement Administrative Standards & Procedures Manual which was in effect during the time of the county entering into the agreement with Secure HR, defines a single-source contract.

“Single-source purchases are the acquisition of commodities or services from a specific source or provider based upon standardization, warranty, compatibility, safety considerations and other similar factors where other competitive sources (suppliers) may be available. This procurement method may also be used upon a determination that the likely, non-speculative cost of a competitive solicitation process would exceed any potential savings and benefit to the County.”

Pages 40 and 41 list the requirements for the completion of a single-source contract award. Included among these requirements is the completion of a Request Memorandum (Memo) providing details of what goods or services are required, the justification to support the single source designation and all efforts made to obtain pricing that is competitive within the applicable marketplace.

TBT requested a copy of this memo and found that multiple of the included details per instructions did not appear to meet the intended standard. The memo was signed by Deputy DePol in Washington’s absence on July 25. Procurement Division Official Erickson signed the memo on August 3.

Where the memo requested a description of previous solicitations and market research, a one-sentence response failed to fulfill this memo requirement. Likewise,  where the memo prompts for details of efforts made to obtain the best price/value for the county, another one-sentence response fails to answer this requirement. 

In comparison, the notice published for the county's existing contract with Gallagher for HR consulting services clearly stated the justification for the single-source award:  

"Gallagher Benefit Services, Inc. is a current Manatee County contract holder. Their institutional knowledge of the County’s human resources and employee health benefits operations gives them a unique understanding and perspective in relation to the provision of Human Resources Consulting Services. Although there are other firms who can provide Human Resources Consulting Services, Gallagher Benefit Services, Inc.’s strategic HR assessment and institutional knowledge best aligns with the County’s goals and objectives."

TBT also reviewed other documentation required under procurement procedures for the award of a single-source contract.

An invoice dated September 12 showed a company by the name of Secure HR Pro, LLC had submitted a request for payment of $10,000 as a first installment toward contract agreement No. 23-R082620JE—the agreement with Secure HR, LLC.  The W9 tax document required by procurement for the agreement matches the business name on the agreement documents, "Secure HR, LLC" and not "Secure HR Pro, LLC." 

Noting the difference between the two LLC names, a search of sunbiz.org records revealed that “Secure HR Pro” had only just been registered as a Florida limited liability company on Aug. 1. The registered agent was Dennis Cooley and the principal address reported for the LLC matched the registration information for Cooley’s other “Secure HR” business—the one the county had actually awarded the contract to.

A quick review of Secure HR’s business website revealed that the business appeared to provide services mainly to “small businesses” with a focus on payroll. However, on the website, a company “news update” dated Sept. 14 announced new expanded services under “Secure HR Pro.”

“Introducing Secure HR Pro: Elevating HR Services for Large Complex Organizations,” the news update on the company’s website was titled.

The obvious lack of justification as required by the Single-Source Request Memo raises questions as to why the county would opt to award Secure HR a contract to perform assessments of its HR department with a goal of eventually outsourcing several of the county’s HR functions to a company that appears to have begun providing such services to “large complex organizations”—only after the county awarded the single-source contract to the company.

Because the invoice was submitted by Secure HR Pro LLC, and not Secure HR LLC whom the county actually had an agreement, TBT reached the Clerk of Court and Comptoller’s Department of Finance to request a copy of the check that was issued on payment.

In response to our request for public records, an official with the Clerk’s Finance Department informed TBT that payment had not yet been processed because the office had not received the invoice package and a number of new vendor documents in order to complete the transaction.

“We have requested additional information from the vendor before payment can be issued.  It is not unusual to have questions for a vendor during the setup process. When the check is issued, we can provide a copy to you at that time,” the employee of Clerk’s Finance wrote in an email.

In addition to questions about the qualifications of Secure HR to provide the service the county has single-sourced from it, as well as questions about specifically which company of Cooley’s the county intends to actually do business with, another discrepancy appeared among the documents reviewed by TBT.

Included in the agreement packet as attached to the Aug. 22 meeting agenda, required Exhibit D, Insurance and Bond Requirements states, “No award shall be made until the Procurement Division has received the Certificate of Insurance in accordance with this section.”

Interestingly, Exhibit B was signed by both Cooley, as the representative of Secure HR, and an insurance agent with an employer insurance brokerage company, Bridgely Key Options, LLC.

According to sunbiz.org, Bridgely Key Options is registered to Peter Britton, but Cooley and Britton are both listed as “manager members.” The principal address of the company is the same as Secure HR LLC and Secure HR Pro LLC.

On Oct. 4, TBT submitted a record request to Manatee County’s records division for copies of the insurance certificates on file with the county’s procurement division for Secure HR LLC.

On the morning of Friday, Oct. 6, the county’s records management division responded to our request, initially producing a single insurance certificate, noting that an additional certificate would be forthcoming.

The initial insurance certificate showed an issue date of Oct. 5—one day after TBT requested a copy, and more than seven weeks after the board approved the agreement with Secure HR.

Nearly a month has passed since the first payment invoice was received and signed by Deputy DePol before being submitted to the clerk's office for payment.

The second insurance certificate provided to TBT by records management was for Secure HR Pro, and it was dated Oct. 6—the same day the copy was provided to TBT.

Conflict of Interest

Along with the concerns uncovered by TBT related to the county’s awarded agreement with Secure HR LLC to assess, and possibly at some point outsource some of the organization’s human resources functions, questions are raised about the potential appearance of conflict.

According to a Conflict of Interest Affidavit on record and signed by Cooley, there are no “contractual” disclosures that would exclude his business from providing services to the county.

However, given the appearance of political and/or previous personal relationships between certain commissioners and Cooley, as well as how the procurement process was expedited and multiple revisions made to the proposal—ultimately bringing the total cost under the threshold which would require an advertised Notice of Intent to Award—the agreement with Secure HR does not seem to avoid the appearance of favoritism.

The county’s Manual for Administrative Standards & Procedures for Procurement provides guidance to staff responsible for procuring goods and services for the county government.

Under the outlined "Rules for Procurement," the manual states that the county shall, "
Conduct all procurements in an open, fair, and impartial manner and avoiding any impropriety or the appearance of any impropriety."

The manual defines "nepotism" in procurement as, "The use of authority or influence to show favoritism to relatives or friends without merit." 

From the manual's subheading, II. "Procurement Code of Ethics," page 12:

A. Only seek or accept a position when confident of possessing the qualifications to serve to the advantage of the County.

C. Governed by the highest ideals of honor and integrity in all public and personal relationships in order to merit the respect and inspire the confidence of the organization and the public being served.

E. Identify and restrict the participation of any individual in operational situations where a conflict of interest may be involved.


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  • Dianna

    We will be broke and broken before we can vote them out and this has happened in less than 3 years- less than 1 year for the new commissioners.  We will remember the names that ruined our county and wasted our tax dollars.  Next on the chopping block is the Tunnel to Towers project on Oct 10th agenda.  Commissioners will look the veterans in the eye as they tout a project from Bearden on Buckeye Road -that is nothing but a sham with a lot of tax-payer dollars wasted, just like this HR thing. 

    Sunday, October 8, 2023 Report this

  • kmskepton

    EVERYTHING they do raises questions. Pathetic puppets.

    Sunday, October 8, 2023 Report this

  • Fishhead

    If you can't make an honest living, just come to Manatee county. Everything is for sale

    Sunday, October 8, 2023 Report this

  • Debann


    Sunday, March 17 Report this