By Dan Christensen
As Broward commissioners prepare to publicly debate the merits of a proposed new ethics code, a county contractor is accusing county officials of unfairly playing politics when handing out multimillion-dollar contracts.
CH2M Hill, the international engineering giant, says it ran into a buzz saw last year when it sought the lucrative job of lead designer for the $810-million expansion of the south runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
“I have personally never witnessed such a politicized selection process,” said CH2M Hill President Mark Lasswell in an unusually frank letter to commissioners and staff. CH2M Hill has several other contracts with the county, including a general services contract at Port Everglades.
In September, the county chose Florida-based engineering companies PBS&J and Reynolds Smith & Hills to lead a 15-member design team for the controversial runway expansion. The job includes figuring out how to construct a bridge to extend the south runway over Federal Highway.
The design contract, which has yet to be finalized, is expected to be worth $15-$20 million.
The PBS&J/RS&H team was selected by a committee made up mostly of elected commissioners. The selection was made against a backdrop of infighting lobbyists, political fundraisers and thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
Four incumbent commissioners up for re-election this year have raked in campaign dollars from both sides. But PBS&J/RS&H and their subcontractors outspent the CH2M Hill team, campaign records show.
Commissioner Sue Gunzburger, who’s in a bitter race with former State Sen. Steve Geller, got the most. PBS&J’s team gave her campaign in excess of $11,000 – or seven times more than she received from CH2M Hill and its subcontractors.
The PBS&J team spent about half that amount on the campaigns of Mayor Ken Keechl, Kristin Jacobs and Diana Wasserman-Rubin. Still, those contributions were about twice as much as those made by CH2M Hill’s team.
The committee’s vote for PBS&J/RS&H was lopsided, but not unanimous. Commissioner Lois Wexler walked out on the vote. She says she felt rushed, and that things “didn’t smell right.”
“I’ve never done anything like that before,” said Wexler. “I felt that there was something inappropriate that had occurred in the process and I didn’t want to be a part of that.”
Broward’s proposed new ethics code would curb the commission’s role in handing out such lucrative government contracts by barring – as a conflict of interest – commissioners from serving on county procurement committees.
Denver-based CH2M Hill protested the county’s selection of its competitors with claims that the process was tainted by misinformation, conflicts of interest, and the improper demands of commissioners/committee members – but lost.
CH2M Hill did not appeal. Instead, Lasswell wrote county purchasing director Brenda J. Billingsley in late December to rebut her denial “lest our silence be interpreted as acquiescence.”
Lasswell accused Billingsley and the county of ignoring “grave and verifiable” defects with the selection process identified by CH2M Hill in its formal protest. He said those flaws “called into question the integrity of the selection process.”
Billingsley did not respond to Broward Bulldog’s request for comment.
But a spokesman for PBS&J said Broward’s procurement system worked well.
“Broward County’s response to CH2M Hill refutes that the process was flawed and confirms that the selection process was done properly,” said Jorge Martinez of The Conroy Martinez Group in Coral Gables. “It is PBS&J’s position that the county, after a very careful process, chose the most qualified team to do the work.”
CH2M Hill contends it lost the south runway job after being made a scapegoat for the botched construction of an airport taxiway that began to rut shortly after it was finished in 2008. Repairs will likely cost several million dollars.
The company says that while the selection process was underway, county airport expansion director Greg Recht improperly influenced a pair of county inquiries into what went wrong on the taxiway project, and then forwarded misinformation about CH2M Hill’s responsibility to the selection committee that would pick a designer for the south runway. It also claims the county has turned a blind eye to the matter.
Recht declined to comment.
CH2M Hill designed the taxiway. Triple R Paving – which is suing the county and CH2M Hill – handled construction. URS Corp. was the program manager responsible for quality assurance, hiring Bureau Veritas NA to do the job.
In a written protest, CH2M Hill officials said fingers began to point their way when they sought the design contract for the south runway, and that the county stacked the deck against their company.
CH2M Hill says, for example, that while the south runway design contract was pending the county retained Bureau Veritas – the company that handled quality assurance on the taxiway – and another firm to find the cause of the taxiway pavement problems.
Likewise, a senior project manager from PBS&J – its competitor for the south runway project – was allowed to assist in the taxiway evaluation. The manager, Joseph Duarte, was URS’s construction project manager on the problematic taxiway before he joined PBS&J.
That evaluation blamed CH2M Hill for a poor design and specifying an inadequate type of asphalt.
A second evaluation by another company was ordered in apparent response to CH2M Hill’s complaints. It found no “significant” fault with CH2M Hill’s pavement design, but did conclude its specified asphalt binder was a contributing cause of the rutting, according to CH2M Hill’s protest letter.
CH2M Hill contends that as the selection process on the new runway neared an end last September, county officials demanded it indemnify the county for the cost of taxiway repairs.
“There is simply no denying the county’s position: pay the entire cost of fixing the problems at Taxiway C even though you did not cause them, and you will get favorable treatment in the selection process,” Lasswell wrote.
“Conduct like this is unprecedented in our experience,” Lasswell told commissioners. “It is our hope that the county’s citizens will demand a complete overhaul of the current flawed process for selecting county contractors.”