CITIZENS REACT

Richland’s selection of penny project manager riles watchdog group

dhinshaw@thestate.com January 13, 2014 

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Members of a citizen watchdog committee objected Monday to the selection of an out-of-town engineering firm to manage Richland County’s transportation improvement program.

“I’m sure you’re a great firm,” Elise Bidwell told members of ICA Engineering’s team, introduced to the transportation penny advisory committee. “But I want to know how much of the money ... is actually going to go to people in Richland County for doing the job.”

Committee members said they heard the second-place finisher was rated higher than ICA on their commitment to hiring small, local and minority subcontractors.

But transportation director Rob Perry would not discuss the ratings. He said they were a private part of contract negotiations.

Richland County Council set up the 17-member citizen advisory committee, short-handed as TPAC, to oversee details of the county’s massive transportation improvement program – which got under way with last week’s pick of a project manager.

But committee members said they should have been consulted. Since they were not given the rationale behind the decision, some said, the selection plays into the hands of those skeptical about government.

“I’m looking out for small, local businesses that are headquartered here,” committee member Bobby Williams said.

Richland County Council selected ICA Engineering, headquartered in Kentucky, over Columbia-based CECS Engineering Consulting Services and three other firms.

The highly competitive contract, valued at $50 million over five years, sets in motion the beginning of the county’s massive transportation improvement package, funded with a local sales tax. Voters approved the tax in November 2012.

J.T. McLawhorn said voters had to be convinced to support the county’s transportation plan, and one of the selling points was the formation of the watchdog committee to keep the process open and accountable.

“The firewall is this committee here,” McLawhorn said, “so people expect us to be very engaged in this process.”

Member Jim Faber added: “If we’re just going to be here to rubber-stamp stuff, I’ll go home.”

Williams directed his comments to the three council members in attendance.

“Y’all have done a poor job, I’ll tell you that,” he said.

“I think you set yourself up for a lawsuit.”

Paul Raad, one of several representatives of CECS in attendance, said afterward he did not know whether the firm would lodge what would be a rare protest of the county’s contract award.

The teams were rated on six criteria, with 40 percent of the total involving their goals on hiring small, local and minority firms. Other criteria involved experience in the transportation arena and the ability to mobilize quickly.

After the scoring, which was done by county staff, the council interviewed all five teams.

Both ICA Engineering and CECS made the top three selected by staff.

“The presentations backed up the scoring,” Perry, the transportation director, told the TPAC. “From my standpoint, things went about the best they could.”

He and Councilman Paul Livingston noted that contract negotiations with ICA Engineering could include boosting their goals on local and minority participation.

“We’re not depositing these dollars in a Kentucky bank account,” Perry said. “These dollars are going to stay local.”

The council’s new chairman, Norman Jackson, was joined by Livingston and Councilman Kelvin Washington at the hour-long meeting.

Jackson said he would make sure the committee gets information before key council decisions.

But, Washington said, “No matter how you cut it, in the final analysis, we’re going to be responsible.”

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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