WESTMINSTER — It wasn't pretty, but council opponents of the proposed City Hall expansion wrested control of the controversial project Monday night andvoted to pull it back to the starting gate for public debate.
Now, the $1.6 million first phase of the expansion has, astonishingly, run aground.
In August, the expansion appeared to be home free when a split council voted to move forward with the project, which eventually would cost an estimated $3.4 million.
But what began Monday as a routinereview of bids for the design of Phase I -- which includes renovation and a 10,000-square-foot addition -- ended in a 3-1 vote to table the bids indefinitely.
The key vote came from Stephen R. Chapin Sr., who voted in favor of the project in August.
However, after witnessing the downward spiral of the economy and cuts in state aid to municipalities, Chapin said he has second thoughts about the prudence of launching a major capital expenditure.
"A lot of things have changed since we first entertained this project," he said. "I'm concerned the state is going to cut another $90 million to local governments.
"We don't know where those cuts are going to come from. I think we have to be conservative right now."
Council President William F.Haifley, the expansion's prime supporter, did nothing to mask his disgust Monday as he watched the project become bogged down.
"All I'm seeing is a suggestion to go back in time," he said.
But the tabling of the bids was just the start of Monday's fireworks.
Not only was Phase I stalled, but the council also voted unanimously to conduct a public hearing on the plan.
That move is awkward because it will result in a public hearing -- on a date yet to be set -- on a project the council already has approved.
However, nothing about theCity Hall project has been routine.
"This is an unfinished and painful issue," Councilwoman Rebecca Orenstein said. "A formal public hearing has never been held on this issue."
Depending on the resultof the hearing, Phase I could face a greater danger. It could be quashed formally if a council member who voted for it in August -- Chapin, Haifley or Edward S. Calwell -- has a change of heart and calls for a new vote.
The door then would be open for opponents of the current plan, who have said that the option of rental space -- which they say could solve the city government's office space crunch for far less than new construction -- has not been adequately explored.
Orenstein called Monday for a vote to rescind the August vote but was curtly ruled out of order by Haifley. That's when Councilman Kenneth A.Yowan, who, along with Orenstein and Mayor W. Benjamin Brown, has called for more study of the rental space option, suggested tabling thebid review.
Early in Monday's meeting, City Planning Director Thomas B. Beyard recommended that the council accept the $152,314 bid from Cho, Wilks & Benn Architects Inc. for architectural and engineering plans for the City Hall work.
However, Yowan expressed concern that the bid was markedly higher than the Baltimore firm's $127,775 preliminary bid, which was offered in September.
"Either they didn'thave their facts straight in September or else we're being taken advantage of," he said.
However, Beyard said the higher bid resulted from its more detailed and complete proposal.
The city solicited bids from six companies, three of which responded. The other two bids came from the Baltimore firms of Richter, Cornbrooks & Gribble Inc. ($146,886) and Basco Associates Inc. ($88,355).
After council members finished with Phase I, they went to the mat over Phase II.
The original plans call for following up the City Hall addition with a new building for the Police Department. Yowan has advocated buying and renovating an existing building.
The city has a building in mind, but its identity has not been disclosed to avoid compromising the city's bargaining position. Yowan asked Monday for $2,340 for an environmental study of the building.
Haifley belittled the request, saying it digressed from original plans for Phase II. But the council disagreed and voted unanimously to approve money for the assessment.
The council president remained incredulous to the end.
"Sometimes, I don't believe what I'm hearing tonight," Haifley said, shaking his head.
To which Orenstein replied, "That's the wondrous nature of the council."