Local Bidding Irregularities Exist for the $100,000 Redesign of the City of Toledo Website

This story exemplifies the need for local journalism

Or it's overblown and nothing wrong occurred

created Apr 16, 2020 - updated Apr 24, 2020

The cost will be at least $100,000 to redesign this abomination, which fails to function in most of my web browsers because of the security and privacy settings that I have set.

https://toledo.oh.gov

Over the past two days, I've been using the Pale Moon web browser more often, almost exclusively. Pale Moon is based somewhat Firefox.

In Pale Moon, I use a web browser add-on called eMatrix, which is a fork or clone of uMatrix. eMatrix functions the same as uMatrix from what I have observed. Even the default settings seem to be the same.

When I view toledo.ohio.gov in Pale Moon, using the default settings of eMatrix, the City of Toledo's homepage is mangled. It's hard to read the text.

webpagetest.org results for the City of Toledo's website homepage.

https://toledo.oh.gov/
From: Dulles, VA - Chrome - Cable
4/16/2020, 4:07:26 PM
First View Fully Loaded:
Download time: 23.625 seconds !!!
Web requests: 58
Bytes downloaded: 7,595 KB

391 KB of the download were for JavaScript. That's a small amount of JavaScript for media websites, but it still seems like too much JavaScript that SHOULD be designed to inform local residents. We don't visit the site to be impressed by animations and other useless bullshit. We need quick access to information.

Over 7 megabytes of the download, nearly all of the download, were for images. Come on. It has to be possible to simplify the use of images.

That's atrocious for a homepage, especially a local government's homepage. What if people needed to visit the City of Toledo's website for some kind of crisis? What would happen if people tried to visit the site with spotty or slow-ish cell service? The homepage would never load. Users may not see the links to important info.

Currently, the City of Toledo homepage uses an inhumane web design. With the massive bloat of modern web design infecting so many websites today, I'm guessing that the $100,000 that will be spent on a redesign will only mean more bloat and unnecessary complexity.

It's doubtful that the $100,000 will be used to test page bloat. I doubt that anyone tests how the site responds over a 2G connection. I doubt that anyone will test how the site looks on an older monitor that has a lower resolution where so-called white backgrounds look grey.

Now to the Blade story:

Subtitle: "Concerns about bidding process prompted employee to formally request an investigation by the state of Ohio."

Excerpts from the lengthy Blade story:

A Toledo design firm connected to the mayor’s sweeping income tax increase campaign recently won a $100,000 contract to redesign the city’s website in a bidding process now under scrutiny by several public officials.

Madhouse Creative, the firm that got the job, was the highest bidder of 10 companies that submitted proposals — and the only firm that bid above the project’s $100,000 budget.

[Madhouse Creative was] also the only firm given the chance to lower its proposed contract price after the city’s competitive bidding process;

and the only firm with direct employment ties to Strategy Five, the campaign consulting group that has been paid at least $165,000 by a political action committee backing the income tax increase on the primary election ballot known as Issue 1.

Molly Luetke, who handles graphic design for Strategy Five, is an accounts manager at Madhouse. David Mann, who provides strategy and communications expertise for Strategy Five and is an unpaid adviser to the mayor, was listed as Madhouse’s statutory agent until February, 2020, according to Ohio Secretary of State records.

It’s those connections, concerns about the bidding process, and the fact the city hired a Madhouse employee to work on the website project after the bidding process was complete that have prompted councilmen to ask questions, and a city employee to formally request an investigation by the state of Ohio.

Records obtained by The Blade in March show information technology employee Gabriel Jones, who led the committee of city staff that reviewed the bids, filed a complaint with the state auditor’s office on Nov. 27, 2019 alleging the process was improper.

The complaint points the connections between Madhouse, Ms. Luetke and Mr. Mann, and the Strategy Five political consulting firm, and alleges the Kapszukiewicz administration hired Rachel Rine, who at the time was a Madhouse web designer and developer, away from the private company so she could perform those duties in-house, thereby reducing the Madhouse bid.

“All of this information seems to point towards backroom deals, an amended bid, and circumvention of bid rules among other fraudulent behaviors,” the complaint states.

The mayor said he was unaware a complaint was filed with the state auditor, but he is confident his administration has done nothing improper. “There just simply isn’t a conflict in any way, shape, or form,” he said. “Madhouse was selected for that work as part of a public process.”

Mr. Messina said Ms. Rine was hired because of her expertise on websites and project management, not because of her connection to Madhouse.

Representatives from Hart, Thread, and Madison Avenue all said they believed the bid process was fair and pretty typical, though they were disappointed to not be selected.

Bill Sattler, a partner at Madhouse, said the firm followed all the rules of the bid process, just as the others did. He added Ms. Luetke’s work for Strategy Five is separate from her full-time job with the company.

The new city website is set to launch Nov. 1, but several councilmen are looking for more information about how the administration awarded the $100,000 contract in the first place. Several councilmen contend the bid process lacked transparency.

Ms. Bennett told city council members the administration didn’t need their permission to sign the contract with Madhouse because it fell under the city’s annual commodities ordinance, which typically covers routine and often bulk purchases such as gasoline, uniforms, and janitorial supplies.

“Since we don't do the website every year like we buy commodities — oil and salt — this is, to me, problematic,” then-Councilman Tom Waniewski said.

Apr 24, 2020

Apr 21, 2020 - Toledo Blade editorial - Political friends, indeed

Any mayor trying to get voters to increase their income tax rate ought to be more intellectually honest and less tone deaf.

Elected officials are not supposed to use their positions to steer taxpayer-funded work to their political friends.

You don’t need an ethics class to know that. And everyone understands that such actions cannot be justified.

So when it happens you have to assume that those engaged in such actions think the public will not notice, or care.

Here’s hoping they are wrong.

A Toledo design firm with political ties to Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz and his income-tax-increasing ballot measure, Issue 1, has been awarded a $100,000 contract to design the city’s website — despite initially submitting the highest of the 10 bids for the job.

The winning firm, Madhouse Creative, was then given a chance to reduce its high bid!

Also, one of its employees left for a $75,000-a-year job with the city as the website-redesign deal was being hammered out.

If all this strikes you as leaving the faint, or not so faint, smell of insider dealing, you are right.

This kind of buddy politics stinks.

City council members have cried foul at the website redesign deal, as has at least one city employee who filed a complaint with the Ohio state auditor.

All this is as politically dumb as it is breathlessly entitled.

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