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Committee tells auditor to seek water audit contract with UT

Thursday, March 31, 2022 by Jo Clifton

On Wednesday, City Council’s Audit & Finance Committee directed City Auditor Corrie Stokes to move forward with an interlocal agreement with the University of Texas to conduct an audit to review problems at Austin Water. The city has just released its internal report on the events that led to the boil-water notice in February.

Council has already directed Stokes to figure out how to find the appropriate contractor to investigate the February event and four other “recent significant negative water quality events and water supply interruptions.”

Stokes said she would like to be able to conduct the audit with her staff, but would not be able to do so because of a personnel shortage. She told the committee there were two different ways they could move forward with the contract: either go through a procurement process to hire a private contractor to do the research, or use an interlocal agreement. She explained that the city already has a basic interlocal agreement with UT.

Stokes said she had conversations with another university, but that institution has contracts with other entities such as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and was concerned about a conflict of interest. She added that several private contractors that work for Austin Water would not be suitable because of a possible conflict of interest.

She noted that it would take longer to find a contractor through the competitive process and reach agreement on the terms of the contract than it would to approach UT for an interlocal agreement related to Austin Water. Specifically, she said, the UT Center for Water and the Environment, part of the university’s Cockrell School of Engineering, had expressed an interest in the project.

Stokes said she learned the city would not be able to operate under emergency contracting rules because the situation could not be defined as an emergency. Council Member Vanessa Fuentes disagreed with that assertion, saying, “I do think this does fit an immediate urgent need,” and added that she would prefer an open solicitation to an interlocal agreement.

Fuentes is chair of the Austin Water Oversight Committee, which is meeting today to discuss recommendations related to the February boil-water incident.

Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter, who chairs the Audit & Finance Committee, said she would not be in favor of a lengthy contract process. She pointed out that it could take six to eight months to set up a contract with the private firm, and that would mean they would not be doing research during the summer months. She called on James Scarboro, the city’s procurement officer, to explain why they could not call the situation an emergency and circumvent normal contracting procedures.

Scarboro explained that in an emergency the city could contract with an outside vendor to perform the services needed. He said there were a number of such contractors available but the city had not identified any specific one to complete the contract. Ideally, he said, the city prefers a competitive process. But there is no provision in state law to short-circuit that competitive process, which normally takes six to eight months.

Fuentes asked whether that process could be shortened to two to three months. Scarboro responded that the city could shorten the process if they could identify which portions to abbreviate. However, he said, “We’d still take a number of months.”

Fuentes said she would be in favor of that shortened competitive process. Council members Mackenzie Kelly and Leslie Pool both said they would be in favor of the interlocal agreement. Pool said UT would have the ability to call on outside experts if they were needed. Kelly made the motion to ask Stokes to move forward with the interlocal agreement and Pool provided the second.

Alter told Stokes if she did not get the responses she expected from UT, she should return to the committee for further direction. “For me it is important that this process move forward,” she said, emphasizing that she wants the contractor to be able to work “during the whole summer season …when they have the most time to focus really clearly on this project.”

Fuentes chose to abstain from the vote directing Stokes to move forward with the interlocal agreement. Although Stokes now has the authority to begin working on the contract with UT, it is likely that she will have to get Council approval to spend money on the research.

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