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Water commission action stymied by recusals

Friday, July 18, 2008 by Mark Richardson

The Water and Wastewater Commission sent a controversial System Facility Engineering Rotation List authorization to the City Council without a recommendation Wednesday night, after a majority of the commissioners present recused themselves. The list, a proposed four-year agreement between the Austin Water Utility and seven engineering firms, was the center of a recent controversy that caused the resignation of a commission member.


Former Commission Member Ronnie Jones raised several question at meetings in May and June over the process the city used to develop the list. Jones revealed during discussion of the list that he had been contacted by a firm with a vested interest in the matter, and resigned his seat after he was informed that he had committed a breach of the city’s Ethics Code by not revealing the contact. (See In Fact Daily, July 8, 2008) The item had been postponed from the May and June meetings.


Commission member Michael Warner, who supported Jones in his opposition to the process by which the list was developed, continued to state his opposition at this week’s meeting. When the item came up for consideration, Warner, who was temporarily chairing the panel, accepted a motion for approval from Commission member Mario Espinoza, but would not second it. The other three members in attendance – Dale Grey, Cheryl Scott-Ryan and Karen Friese – had all recused themselves due to possible conflicts of interest. Chair Chien Lee was absent.


“I really think this thing needs to be redone,” Warner said. “I don’t have anything against any of these companies. I don’t know them. I’m more concerned about the process by which the list was developed.”


It appears that Warner’s refusal to second Espinoza’s motion had no practical impact, however, since a quorum—in this case four members—is required in order to approve any motion.


Warner said that to him, the process was flawed in several ways. He cited a decision matrix used by city staff that automatically awarded all applicants 11 points if there had been no complaints filed against them in previous work with the city. He said the system did not find the best-qualified candidates.


Among the other flaws he pointed out was that one of the seven primary contractors listed one of the other primaries as a subcontractor. City staff said that while it was not common, it was permissible under the current system.


The item before the Commission was to names seven firms – Camp, Dresser and McKee, Austin; Chaing, Patel & Yerby, Austin; Kalluri Group, Houston; Alan Plummer and Assoc., Austin; CH2M Hill, Austin; Kennedy/Jenks Consultants, Austin; and MWH Americas, Austin – to provide services for Austin Water utility on a rotating basis from 2008 to 2011. The total of the seven agreements was not to exceed $7 million.


City staff said the Rotation List is used as a way to distribute work as projects became available in a system that was more efficient than issuing requests for proposals. Staff said all of the firms were thoroughly pre-screened for qualifications prior to being put on the list.


The item will now go before the City Council at its July 24 meeting.


The terms of Warner, Espinoza and Chair Chien Lee are set to expire at the end of this month. Council Member Lee Leffingwell will likely reappoint Warner, but retired Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley appointed Espinoza and former Council Member Jennifer Kim appointed Lee, so it seems likely that there will be new commissioners in their spots. Council Member Sheryl Cole is considering appointing attorney Gwen Webb to file the vacancy left by Jones’ resignation.

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