City Council special meeting, bond issue spending procedures reconsidered, April 3, 2017

Members present:  All

Mayor McBrayer makes a case for partitioning the school system project from city and parks and giving the job to Hoar Program Management. Walter Jones, foreground, eventually agrees to consider the projects separately, although savings will be lost, he says.

Secrecy was just one of the problems plaguing the city’s $110 bond issue thus far, it was learned tonight. Inexperience was the other. A special session tonight that was expected to yield a vote on whether to hire B. L. Harbert International (likely) or Hoar Program Management (possible) for $110 million in public works instead yielded much soul searching and 90 minutes of debate over how to compare cost and other merits of the bidding firms.

The task force, made up of some council, school board and park board officials, has been meeting privately since December to choose a project manager for schools, parks and police facilities construction. The funds must be committed by December 2019.

The vote was carried over to Monday, April 10, at 5:30 p.m., to give the 6 council members not included on the task force time to understand the projects and competing bids. That became an issue after the mayor recommended separating the schools portion of the project from the rest and recommending Hoar Project Management, against the task force’s earlier recommendation. In the discussion  that followed, it became evident that few of the 5 council task force members had a firm grasp of the financial or practical matters at hand. The mayor cited confusing and overwhelming amount of information to consider for the overall project, the school system’s apparent preference for HPM, and an objectionable 70/30 split of savings offered by Harbert. The split had been negotiated by Harbert and Kendrick. In addition, the mayor alluded to Hoar Program Management’s letter to the full council claiming bias and irregularities in how the bids were handled.

Link to a bid comparison and chart posted earlier today and verified by tonight’s proceedings.

Of the 6 excluded council members, Andrew Wolverton (Ward 2) objected first, saying he wasn’t informed enough to cast a vote. “I can’t understand what transpired,” he said of the task force deliberations. “It’s hard to follow the rabbit trails.” Mike Higginbotham (Ward 2) also cited frustration, saying he had several financial questions for the task force but realized they couldn’t be answered. In turn Barry Smith and Jennifer Andress expressed concern that task force members had not communicated over the past three months. Both said they had no doubts about the firms’ abilities, but had not been kept informed, as promised in December.

In contrast, Patrick McClusky (Ward 3) and Andy Gwaltney (Ward 1) said they had taken personal initiative to learn about the proceedings from their ward mates (Walter Jones and Britt Thames respectively). Asked after the meeting if he shared any of his information, Gwaltney said his job wasn’t to keep tabs on or educate the other council members. “My responsibility is to my ward constituents,” he said.

Adding to the frustration was a letter by HPM’s Mike Lanier alluding to having his offer leaked to competitor Harbert before the bids were received, and for having two follow-up calls from Supt. Cleveland about amending the bid, first with Mr. Limbaugh and then with Alex Wyatt. In the first, the Superintendent asked for a price to handle the schools-only part of the project. HPM provided those figures. In the second, Lanier was asked for a price to provide up-front project management, then hand off the construction management–considered the real meat of the work — to the other firm to execute. It was this second call that prompted Lanier’s letter, to the embarrassment of the schools superintendent. Mr. Jones said he was offended by the letter as well.

Mr. Lanier, who was present tonight, repeatedly explained his stance to the council. He defined the terms Project Management and Construction Management for the council. He was not averse to bidding on the schools project, he said, but was not interested in doing project management divorced from construction management.

When the conversation cycled back to the mayor’s recommendation, and with emotion running high, it was decided to postpone any decision for another week. There being no further business, the meeting was adjourned at approximately 6:30 p.m.

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