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Investigation preceded city spokesman's departure

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Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 8:12 pm | Updated: 10:59 am, Wed Jan 23, 2013.

After six years on the job, Ric Barrick is stepping down as director of communications for the city of Charlottesville after conservative radio host Rob Schilling revealed that Barrick had been investigated for possible violations of policy related to the awarding of government contracts.

An official investigation into the matter sparked by Schilling earlier this year resulted in a special prosecutor choosing not to file criminal charges against Barrick after finding that he appeared to be pursuing the best option for the city, but made numerous mistakes and appeared ignorant of important procedures.

City Manager Maurice Jones said Barrick’s duties as communications director will end today, but he will continue to be paid as a “long term temporary employee,” working on the city’s Celebrate 250 anniversary events and other projects.

“As the investigations came to an end, Ric voluntarily submitted his resignation and I accepted,” Jones said Thursday.

“I was born, raised, and now work in a town I dearly love and being able to contribute in this way is something I am very proud of,” Barrick, 49, said in an email, adding that he hopes to continue a career in public service.

A graduate of the University of Virginia, Barrick joined City Hall in 2006 after a career as a TV meteorologist in Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

The investigation spurred by Schilling, a former city councilor, was one of multiple factors that led to his stepping down, Barrick said.

“I resigned several weeks ago before the investigation was complete,” Barrick said. “I had just been through the Huguely trial, which was draining, and this issue with Mr. Schilling was another sign to me that I need to slow down my life and spend more needed time and energy on my family who lives in Charlottesville. I am looking forward to it.”

Schilling posted a detailed rundown on the radio show’s blog Wednesday laying out the results of what he described as a yearlong investigation into a contract award related to the city’s government access television channel, Charlottesville TV10. Barrick made his resignation public the same day, but downplayed the connection to Schilling’s conclusions.

Schilling said he believes the resignation is a direct result of his investigation.

“The timing could not be coincidental,” Schilling said in a Thursday interview, adding that he waited to publish his story until the official investigation had concluded.

The investigation focused on allegations that Barrick manipulated a bidding process in late 2010 for a “channel in a box” product that would allow the city to add more graphical info to TV10, such as scrolling text, ads for events and weather/traffic cameras.

According to emails Schilling said he obtained through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, Barrick appears to have accepted a renegotiated bid after the request for quotation (RFQ) period had already closed in order to award the contract to the vendor he preferred. That vendor, Weather Metrics, had originally submitted a bid that cost roughly $7,500 more than a competing proposal, but ended up winning the contract after altering a bid at Barrick’s request so that it would appear less expensive, according to Schilling.

Barrick would not confirm the authenticity of the emails Schilling posted. He characterized Schilling as a “blogger” and said he hadn’t read the story.

According to Orange County Commonwealth’s Attorney Diana H. Wheeler, who investigated the issue as a special prosecutor, the allegations centered on “bid rigging” laws intended to ensure government contracts are awarded fairly and prevent cronyism.

In a March 16 letter to Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Edward L. Hogshire, Wheeler said she found that Barrick had not followed proper procedures, but he had no criminal intent.

“In fact, it is my view that Mr. Barrick’s actions which violated the policy, though wrong, were well-motivated and were actually taken for the benefit of the citizens,” Wheeler wrote. “He simply wanted what he viewed as a superior product at the best price.”

Barrick highlighted that portion of Wheeler’s letter when asked if anything improper occurred.

“[T]his was my first RFQ and I simply did not follow important directions and will do a better job of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s next time,” Barrick said.

He has maintained that he was cleared of wrongdoing, though Wheeler’s letter states that his actions were “in error and improper.”

“Furthermore, although there were some questionable actions, some less than satisfactory answers to certain questions asked, and some apparent violations of rules and policies, I do not believe that there is probable cause to believe that a crime occurred…,” Wheeler wrote.

Schilling said Barrick’s insistence that he was absolved is an inaccurate portrayal, adding that he told officials he disagreed with their decision not to pursue charges.

“I think the evidence laid out in the story is pretty compelling that something drastically wrong happened,” Schilling said.

In an interview, Wheeler said she believes Barrick was “woefully inept” at following procurement procedures, but it’s not a part of his usual duties and he didn’t break the rules to benefit himself or Weather Metrics.

“What he did, he did out of ignorance,” Wheeler said. “Clearly, he wanted to get around the process … so that he could get what he thought was the best deal for the city of Charlottesville.”

Schilling said he “takes no joy” in seeing someone get in trouble or lose a job, but the episode raises questions as to whether anyone is “minding the store.”

“Why is it that the city manager and city management allowed this to happen?” Schilling said.

Barrick earned $45.77 per hour as director of communications, Jones said, which amounts to about $95,000 annually. With his new responsibilities, Barrick will earn $27.64 per hour, but it’s not yet clear how many hours he will be working.

With a budget of roughly $350,000, the city’s communications office is the main link between the local government and the public. The department oversees media and public relations, resident engagement, internal communications with the city manager’s office and public-access TV.

City officials announced Thursday that Joe Rice, program director in the communications office, and Kristin Gleason, marketing coordinator for Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT), will take over media relations duties until a new communications director has been hired.