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Travis Commissioners remain split over procedures to build new courthouse

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Plans for a new Travis County Civil and Family Courthouse continue to raise questions.


On Tuesday, members of the Travis County Commissioners’ Court approved the allocation of funds for a legal contract associated with the project. This seemingly routine item, however, garnered two no votes: One from Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber and one from Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez.


The vote marks the second consecutive tally on which Huber and Gomez registered their dissent. On Jan. 3, the pair also voted against the award of a contract to multi-national consulting firm Ernst & Young. The agreement, which passed, is for the company to consult on the feasibility of constructing the new courthouse using a public-private partnership.


Neither Huber nor Gomez offered comments from the dais on either vote. Tuesday afternoon, Huber gave In Fact Daily her take on the matter. “I’m a big supporter of getting a new civil courthouse; we need one very badly,” she said. “I do not believe that we are currently walking down the right path in our organizational approach to the new civil courthouse…I do not intend to vote in favor of each step that comes along that continues that process until I see evidence that we have addressed some of the issues that I feel are significant from our internal perspective and management of the civil courthouse process.


“It’s no reflection on the particular team members or those involved in the contract,” she continued, “it’s the process.”


It’s not the first time Huber and Gomez have registered their concerns. Indeed, Huber has suggested several times in open court that the process that the county settled on to vet potential funding and construction methods for the new complex is inadequate. Her concerns center on what she views as a conflict of interest brought about by the fact that the company hired to vet potential construction options could also eventually bid on the project.


“I’d just like to say, we will be getting responses from the people who want to do business with us,” she said last April. “They will be telling us what we want to hear.”


For her part, Gomez has linked what she sees as a rush to build the new courthouse to the specter of the much-maligned process that resulted in the construction of the county’s current criminal justice complex. “I think what may have happened 10 years ago is that there was some planning – but I don’t know how much,” she said in April. “And then it got put on the ballot because there’s always that rush of needing to get it done, and when that occurs you leave a lot of things uncovered.”


The objections from Huber and Gomez are not the only controversy for the project. In mid-December, Travis County Auditor Susan Spataro and the acting head of the county’s Planning and Budget Office Leroy Nellis offered concerns about the process that county officials used to select Ernst & Young. Their worries came in the form of a minority report, produced in their capacity as members of a committee charged with selecting the consultant.


Nellis argued that Ernst and Young lacked the qualifications of the other finalist for the consulting gig, KPMG. “I felt very strongly that the firm performing the analysis should have a local real estate component to evaluate the potential of the local commercial real estate market’s ability to absorb additional retail space over the next twenty-five years,” he wrote. “In my opinion, this requirement separated the two firms since KPMG had a local real estate component and Ernst & Young initially proposed using client confidential information and later revised their proposal to utilize a California-based employee to provide the analysis.”


Spataro’s office did its own analysis of the groups. There, they weighed the responses against “initiatives important to the Commissioners’ Court or to the usefulness of the final report to the Commissioners’ Court.” Spataro’s office ranked KPMG above Ernst & Young in six of nine categories, and ranked them evenly in another.


The split effectively pits Spataro’s office against the office of county purchasing agent Cyd Grimes on the matter.

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