Dam project brings call for changes in bidding

January 06, 1995|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Claiming Columbia Association (CA) staff mismanaged a $1.5 million Wilde Lake dam repair and dredging project, a Columbia Council member is proposing reforms to make the association's contract bidding more open and competitive.

Councilwoman Norma Rose last week recommended changes in CA's bidding process that would require it to solicit three written bids for all construction-related projects and seek council approval for all contracts more than $15,000.

CA's policies do not require its staff to seek bids at present.

The proposal was prompted by what Ms. Rose calls lax supervision, poor recordkeeping, billings without documentation and unexpected delays in a 1994 project to strengthen the deteriorating concrete dam at Wilde Lake's eastern end and remove sediment from the lake.

Among a long list of problems with the project, Ms. Rose said, the contractor was paid by CA more than $50,000 for design work based not on a contract but only on an oral agreement with a CA manager.

"I can't say whether we got stung financially. I'm not sure the extent of it," Ms. Rose said. "The fact is the opportunities were there. That's mismanagement."

The council hired a consultant last summer to audit the project and recommend improvements in the nonprofit association's contracting procedures. Ms. Rose said the consultant's audit supports her long-standing concerns.

The council, which has discussed the report in several private sessions, has refused repeated requests from The Sun to release it publicly.

CA spokeswoman Pamela Mack declined comment on the consultant's report or Ms. Rose's claims until negotiations with the project's contractor, Fox Industries Inc. of Baltimore, are resolved.

The project manager for Fox Industries, Michael Davis, referred questions about the audit back to CA. Fox has performed several other jobs for CA, including less extensive repair work on Wilde Lake dam about five years ago.

In making her proposal, Ms. Rose said CA's contract management process -- in contrast to competitive bidding rules followed by governments -- "presents opportunity for abuse." She emphasized the need for a stronger "public ethic" in the association's operations.

"I do believe competitive bidding is a healthier process than the process we have now where some very large contracts are awarded on a rather personal basis," said Ms. Rose, who represents Wilde Lake village on the council.

"[CA] staff is quite autonomous in the spending of a great deal of public funds. [CA's] process is perhaps more appropriate for a private business than a public institution."

The private nonprofit association manages Columbia's parklands and recreation programs. Its annual budget of about $32 million comes from service fees and its annual levy on Columbia's property owners.

The final cost of the completed Wilde Lake project -- set by contract at a maximum of $1.48 million -- has not been settled nor have the contractor's bills been fully paid, said Ms. Rose and other council members. The contractor's bills may exceed its contract limit, but council members wouldn't provide details.

The association awards contracts for professional services -- architects, planners, engineers, construction managers and consultants -- based on a "master list" of firms that have worked for CA or with which CA managers are familiar.

The policy does not require written proposals or bids, but sometimes CA staff requests them, Ms. Mack said. A CA staff committee considers at least three companies from the list before selecting one, she said.

The president of a Columbia watchdog group that has advocated a competitive bidding process agrees with Ms. Rose that CA's current "closed" system is open to abuse.

"There's no incentive for a contractor to save money for CA when they know they've simply been selected from a list," said Alex Hekimian of Alliance for a Better Columbia.

Three other council members also said that management of the Wilde Lake project didn't meet standards and that changes should be considered in CA's bidding process. But they declined to comment further until the consultant's report is made public.

"It certainly wasn't managed as well as it should have been, but whether that had a significant negative effect is uncertain," said the council's vice chairman, David W. Berson of River Hill village. "In the final analysis, it's unlikely residents will have paid more than they should have. We're working to ensure that."

Ms. Rose highlighted the main concerns which prompted the council to commission the Ernst & Young audit -- for about $19,000 -- of the dam project:

* Whether CA staff and Fox failed to follow CA's contracting policies and procedures, such as soliciting bids from subcontractors. CA does not have to solicit bids in picking a general contractor, such as Fox.

* Whether Fox breached terms of the contract, such as providing progress and cost updates, and whether CA's Open Space Management supervisors took steps to ensure compliance.

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