Photo at left: Jeff Manchester, speaking at Monday’s Board of Selectwomen meeting, said awarding a new contract to the current Longshore Sailing School operator was “a process failure.” Right: Miriam Demarrais, meanwhile, urged the selectwomen “to move forward … and not get bogged down with social media or upset people who lost an RFP.”

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — The Longshore Sailing School navigated  stormy seas this week as a one-year lease extension was granted to Jane Pimentel, the program’s current owner and operator, by the Board of Selectwomen, despite complaints the selection process was flawed.

Charges that the Board of Finance and the Parks and Recreation Department had not followed procedures when selecting Pimentel were called “much ado about nothing” by First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker at Monday’s meeting. She said all procedures required by the town’s rules on awarding contracts were followed.

Three bidders on the contract were interviewed and their proposals closely examined, according to Jennifer Fava, director of the Parks and Recreation Department. The decision was unanimous to award Pimentel a one-year lease extension to run the sailing program. The complaints are from a bidder who did not win the contract, she said.

“To me, it’s sour grapes … and this is really that those who did not get selected are trying to tarnish the process and the reputation as we move forward,” Fava said.

Several speakers at the selectwomen’s special meeting agreed, including Miriam Demarrais, who said she reviews RFPs (Request for Proposals) in her work, “and when you lose, you lose.” She urged the selectwomen “to move forward … and not get bogged down with social media or upset people who lost an RFP.”

The Board of Finance on Jan. 3 tabled an earlier request to extend the Longshore Sailing School lease 10 years when questions and complaints arose about the contract and the award process.

A one-year lease extension instead was offered to Pimentel.

The selectwomen also received complaints about the bidding process, and a social media campaign against the current owner was alluded to by some members of the public at the selectwomen’s meeting. 

Selectwoman Candice Savin said she received a lot of emails and phone calls from the public about the sailing school lease, some supporting the current operator and others “adamantly opposed to this vendor.” 

Savin asked Fava if any complaints had come in about Pimentel over the years she had operated the sailing school and if vendors chosen to operate Parks and Recreation Department programs are monitored.

Fava said Pimentel routinely responded immediately to any issues that arose, and that her contract was approved fairly through the bidding process. “I stand behind it 150 percent based on the proposals and interviews we went through,” she said. “There was nothing nefarious about this.”

The only person criticizing selection of Pimentel’s Longshore Sailing School contract at Monday’s meeting was Jeff Manchester, a competing bidder who called the decision “a process failure.” He claimed that an audit of the sailing organization has never been done, and that the leasing process was rushed and had been questioned by the Board of Finance.

Both Tooker and Fava repeated that the process was carried out correctly.

To clear up concerns about the bidding process, the contract award was delayed and a one-year extension of the Longshore Sailing School lease was awarded instead of the 10-year lease to ensure there is time the program would be ready to operate this summer, Fava said. 

After more policy discussion about the process, a new RFP will be posted over the summer for the program to be in place for the 2025 season, she said.

“We are very lucky that Jane and her team are willing to accept a one-year lease as an extension to their agreement because otherwise we would not have a sailing school this summer,” Tooker said. “That would be a really be a bad result for our visitors and our residents.” 

The selectwomen voted unanimously to approve the one-year extension for Pimentel’s program.

Sailing school fees increased

On Tuesday, the Parks and Recreation Commission approved three higher fees for the Longshore Sailing School. 

They include an increase of $2 per hour to rent a single kayak, from $30 to $32, and $3 an hour to rent a double kayak, from $35 to $38. The increase in rental fees for kayaks will offset higher cost of purchasing the kayaks and the freight charges to transport them, said Jane Pimentel, who operates the school.

Also raised was the cost of a two-week junior sailing program, from $750 to $795. The increase is caused by reducing the size of the advanced class and additional expenses for higher-level instruction, she said. 

Fees were not increased for other classes or other rentals for this summer season.

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman and has taught journalism at New York and Southern Connecticut State universities.