Superior Court Rejects Disappointed Bidder’s Claim

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Whether required by state law or by local ordinance or practice, municipalities often use the competitive bidding process to purchase property, equipment and most types of services. 

In the recent case of Design Dwellings, Inc., d/b/a DDI Construction v. Town of Windham, (Sup. Ct. Cumberland County, March 13, 2017) the plaintiff challenged an award of a road construction contract by the Town of Windham to a contractor who was not the low bidder.  In denying DDI’s request for preliminary injunction, the Court reiterated that Carroll F. Look Construction Company v. Town of Beals, 2002 Me. 128, ¶9, 802 A.2d. 994, holds that when a municipality sends out a request for bids it is making a request for an offer, not an offer which may be accepted to form a contract. By soliciting responses to the bid, the municipality then has the right to make a choice of whether or not to enter into a contract by accepting one of those bids as an offer.  This is particularly so when a municipality makes it clear that it is free to accept or reject any and all bids.

After the preliminary injunction was denied, the Town of Windham filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings on an amended complaint.  The plaintiff argued that even if the request for bids was just a request for offers, a disappointed bidder may still recover its bid preparation costs and possibly lost profits if they rely on statements made in the bidding documents. Justice Lance Walker ruled that for the same reasons that a request for bids is not an offer, it is not reasonable to rely on any statements made in those requests for bids, and granted the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.

The point of all this is that municipalities simply need to be careful about how they use language in requests for bids, to ensure that the process being followed is simply a request for offers.  After the offer is received, the municipality can then make a decision as to whether or not to enter into a contract, and with which bidder.

Preti Flaherty represented the Town of Windham in this case.

What can your Animal Control Officer do for you?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

I remember the days (and I don’t mean they were necessarily the good old days) when Animal Control Officers were called “dog catchers”.  They had a truck, picked up stray dogs, and did not try to help the dogs or reunite them with their families.  They instead took the animals to the “pound”, the owners may or may not have been informed, and if the dog was not timely picked up by the family, the dog was euthanized.   

An Evolving Role

Animal Control Officers’ roles have evolved quite a bit since that time and, in my opinion, for the better.  A “good” Animal Control Officer (ACO) will do much more for a municipality than just keep stray animals off the streets.  An ACO can be a community relations officer for the municipality, maybe even an educator, helping the community he or she serves understand their obligations as pet owners – vaccination requirements, pet and kennel licensing requirements, leash laws and the like.  ACOs can help identify community cat colonies, hoarding situations, and people in need of assistance for the spaying and neutering of their pets. 

Of course, ACOs are also enforcement officers, and their positions are often within the applicable police department. ACOs are not armed with guns, but they do have the ability to request subpoenas and warrants working the District Attorney’s office in their jurisdiction.   ACOs can accompany police officers on calls when animals are involved because ACOs are trained to deal with animals in stressful situations.  

Training in Maine and Beyond

In Maine, ACOs must go through a four-day training program (about 4 to 5 hours of training per day) and then are required to satisfy on-going continuing legal education requirements. With the support of their municipality, some ACOs will further their education by taking additional classes to enhance their value to the community. Although this observation is mostly anecdotal, it seems that there is a shortage of trained ACOs to fulfill the needs of Maine’s municipalities.  Positions are often part-time, with some ACOs being spread thin because of having to serve multiple municipalities.

In The Neighborhood

Given the current popularity of pets, my bet is that members in a community welcome a well-informed, friendly ACO, ready to assist with helping them understand their obligations as pet-guardians, but also looking to the ACO to be their eyes and ears for cases of neglect, cruelty, and when other enforcement actions are required.

Next up – a discussion of the help available to municipalities to address community cat colonies.

Tax Lien Foreclosure – Rights of Mortgage Holders and Unassessed Owners

Friday, March 10, 2017

Experienced tax collectors and treasurers know that mortgage holders and unassessed owners of record have the right to receive copies of certain notices during the tax lien foreclosure process. But what are these entities’ precise rights, and how can towns and cities address the statutory requirements without spending tons of time doing title searches?

A tax collector is not required to send mortgage holders or unassessed owners a copy of the initial 30-day notice. However, 30-A M.R.S.A. § 942 does require that a copy of the lien certificate be sent to such entities at the time it is recorded. Failure to do so gives those entities an additional three months to redeem the property beyond the date they received actual notice that the tax lien certificate was recorded. Mortgage holders must also receive a copy of the 30-45 day notice of impending foreclosure under 30-A M.R.S.A. § 943. Failure to send this notice gives the mortgage holder an extra 30 days beyond the date the notice is actually provided. Although the statute does not state that unassessed owners must receive a copy of this notice, it is good practice to send one.

A municipality cannot know for sure who is entitled to notice unless a title search is performed on the exact date the notice is being sent out. For municipalities with many delinquent taxpayers, it would be impractical to do a title update on each of the properties for which a tax lien certificate will be recorded. After all, most of these taxes are usually paid well before the foreclosure date. However, a town’s efforts to sell tax-acquired property can become subject to legal challenge if it is found after foreclosure that a bank or unassessed owner was not notified. This is particularly true if the bank finds out about the foreclosure after the town sells the property!

It is always safest to check the Registry before sending out any tax lien notices. However, if this is not practical, we recommend that the Treasurer set a reminder to check the Registry around four months prior to the foreclosure date. This will allow time to send out copies of the lien certificates so that any extension will fall within the redemption period, rather than extend it. It will also help secure the foreclosure process against legal challenge.

Social Media and Public Records Laws

Social media is ubiquitous these days. Facebook alone, for example, has nearly 1.5 billion monthly active users. Given social media’s widespread use, it is not surprising that some municipalities have sought to harness its power as an effective tool for communicating with the public. Municipalities that use social media, however, should keep in mind that communications on such sites are not immune from open access laws. On the contrary, communications on municipal social media may qualify as public records that are subject to freedom of information requests.

Where social media is concerned, the key issue that municipalities must remember is that it is the content of the communication that matters, not its format. Consequently, the fact that social media is often perceived as ephemeral does not categorically exempt social media from public records laws. The definition of “public records” in Maine’s FOAA law, for example, makes this clear. That statute broadly defines a “public record” as, among other things, “any written, printed or graphic matter or any mechanical or electronic data compilation from which information can be obtained” and that is in the possession or custody of a public entity. In short, then, municipalities should apply the same record retention principles to communications on social media that they apply to communications in other formats – and look to the content of the communication, rather than its format, to determine their retention obligations. So, for example, a post from a member of the public containing a substantive complaint would likely need to be retained longer than a post containing a simple request for information or conveying other information of short-term value. To help manage their retention obligations, municipalities can take steps to limit the scope of what may be posted on social media, such as by clarifying that social media is not to be used for filing complaints or for other official communications with the municipality. By doing so, municipalities can ensure that their public record obligations do not become a reason to “unlike” social media.