By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org
In the face of public suspicion, a majority of the Broward School Board last week allowed Superintendent Robert Runcie’s move to exclude the public from sitting on a committee that will select companies to manage $800 million in voter-approved construction projects.
The suspicion: that Runcie and Derek Messier, his chief facilities officer, want to get around contracting reforms imposed after a scandal in order to control who gets the lucrative management contracts.
The selection committee’s members will be school board employees only. School officials have said the public will be able to observe the process, but will not participate.
The Qualification Selection Evaluation Committee (QSEC), created in 2010 as an anti-corruption measure after two School Board members were arrested for bribery, won’t be used. Five of QSEC’s 11 members are required by school policy to be civilians.
“Anybody doing the math can see they’re trying to control the outcome,” Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, chair of the district’s Facilities Task Force, said during an interview. “Why would you not put it through QSEC if you are not up to something?”
The suspicion began following recent allegations by Michael Marchetti, a former special assistant to the superintendent who retired in February, that Messier had rigged the bidding by sidestepping QSEC to ensure that Jacobs Project Management Company would receive the management contract. Marchetti, who blew the whistle that led to the arrest of two board members in 2009 and 2010, claimed that Messier handpicked amenable school administrators to sit on an ad hoc committee that selected Jacobs for the contract.
Marchetti made the additional accusation that Jacobs had violated a district policy that prohibits bidders from talking to school officials before a contract is awarded. School administrators took no action on Marchett’s claims until FloridaBulldog.org asked about them, and then announced they were reversing their recommendation that Jacobs get the contract due to that policy violation.
Instead, the board decided to rebid the program manager work and split it into two contracts. Jacobs can rebid on the new contracts, which are estimated to be worth as much as $20 million.
Lynch-Walsh’s Facilities Task Force earlier this month voted 14 to 1 to urge the School Board use QSEC, instead of an all-staff committee, to select the management companies.
The task force is a citizens-advisory group that monitors planning, construction and maintenance of school buildings.
No one – Runcie, Messier or any School Board member – addressed the suspicion that Lynch-Walsh voiced at last week’s meeting. Instead the conversation about which committee to use sounded at times like Supreme Court justices debating the esoteric meaning of words and policies.
It is School Board policy to use QSEC to select companies hired to be “total program managers.” Messier has claimed the district is looking for “program managers,” not “total program managers.” Messier argues the two types of managers are different.
J. Paul Carland, the board’s general counsel, in a legal opinion dated May 12 backed Messier’s interpretation. Lynch-Walsh has argued that “program managers” and “total program managers” are the same thing.
Ultimately, a majority of the board agreed with Messier and Carland. Board members Nora Rupert, Heather Brinkworth and Robin Bartleman had doubts, with Bartleman saying, “There is a gray area…as to the definitions.”
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION DE-EMPHASIZED
Splitting policy hairs has resulted in a de-emphasis of public participation in the contract selection process, a principal reason for the reforms that were adopted five years ago.
What’s happening has fueled public suspicion.
“They are trying to manipulate the process so they can put the people they want on the selection committee,” Charlotte Greenbarg told FloridaBulldog.org. “(They are) bound and determined to give Jacobs that contract.” Greenbarg served on the district’s Audit Committee and Facilities Task Force between 1999 and 2014.
Messier acknowledged during the meeting that QSEC had evaluated bids for an earlier program management contract, but said QSEC’s evaluation “was fraught with problems.”
Lynch-Walsh said in an interview that the “problems” Messier mentioned occurred in 2013 when QSEC almost failed to select URS Corporation South for a $1.75 million construction management contract. Lynch-Walsh was a member of that QSEC.
Staff appeared to favor URS even before QSEC evaluated the bids. According to School Board minutes, Shelley Meloni, director of school construction, told the board on May 21, 2013, that although a company had yet to be selected, the “focus” was on URS.
When QSEC initially ranked AECOM Technology Corporation’s bid first and URS’s bid second, the staff adjourned the meeting to confer with legal counsel.
When QSEC reconvened a week later, staff announced AECOM was disqualified because it violated the Cone of Silence policy regarding contact with school officials while a bid is pending. The contract went to URS.
Messier was not involved in the selection of URS. He joined the Broward School District a year ago.
Some board members are feeling the heat.
“I’m kind of fed up going back and forth with the QSEC committee thing,” said Rosalind Osgood, taking aim at community activists like Lynch-Walsh. “It is almost like they are giving us a mandate, or they are trying to force us to do something.”
In March, Osgood also questioned the need for citizen advisory committees. “It’s not my intent for our advisory committees to replace our staff,” she said.
At last week’s meeting, board member Ann Murray seemed to share the same sentiment.
“I have nothing against bulldogs who keep gnawing away at our system,” she said, referring to the task force members. “(But) if you come into these meetings you will find out it is (only) the bulldogs and one or two other people (who attend)…Maybe QSEC is something of the past…I would just as soon as see it gone.”
Bartleman and Rupert, however, pushed to have QSEC involved to reassure the public.
If the public is not involved in the selection process, “it’s going to be an issue,” Bartleman said. “Stuff like this snowballs…Things like this gets out of control. I’ve seen it before.”
At the end of the meeting, the board decided to discuss during a future workshop if district policy needed to be clarified as to what type of bids will and will not go through QSEC. The discussion is expected to happen, however, along after the selection process has started to pick program managers for the capital bond projects.