Richland County PENNY PROJECTS

Rare protest lodged in Richland’s transportation contract

dhinshaw@thestate.com January 16, 2014 

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The second-place firm in competition to become Richland County’s transportation management team filed a rare protest Thursday, saying it was treated unfairly and should be awarded the contract.

CECS, a Columbia-based company, maintains it was ranked highest in scoring done by staff but that County Council “inexplicably” chose ICA Engineering, an out-of-state firm, instead.

The impact of the protest – including whether it would hold up any of the road work expected to start this year – was unclear Thursday.

“It’s still kind of in the process right now, so it shouldn’t slow anything down in terms of the actual work – yet,” said John Schmidt, CECS’ lawyer.

The company submitted its protest to procurement director Rodolfo Callwood, asking him to overturn the council’s decision.

The normal route would send the dispute next to a review panel, then to circuit court – potentially making it the second court case to arise from voter passage of Richland County’s penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for transportation improvements. The first court case involved voting irregularities in November 2012, which delayed collection of the tax.

Administrator Tony McDonald said the county wants to resolve the issue as quickly as possible – “one, so we can get the issue behind us; and, two, so we can move forward with the projects.

“We don’t want any projects delayed because of the protest. It’s a top priority for us.”

Schmidt said CECS was willing to meet with the procurement director Friday or Monday to try to settle the protest administratively. The president of CECS is Cathy Raad, and her husband, Paul, is principal in charge.

Five teams led by engineering firms were in competition for the contract, valued at $50 million over five years. The contract was said to be the most competitive in a decade or more.

Transportation director Rob Perry said Thursday he did not know whether the protest would create roadblocks or would run parallel with county negotiations with ICA Engineering.

The county has not yet awarded the contract.

In its paperwork, CECS maintains its proposal was ranked by county staff as “the most qualified” among the five teams vying for the contract and that it offered “a far higher percentage” of local, small and minority firms as subcontractors than did the winning team.

Keeping money from the tax circulating in the local economy was one of the county’s goals.

However, Schmidt said, the company does not have a copy of the rankings, which Perry maintains are a private part of contract negotiations.

Schmidt maintains the documents are public records the county should release.

The protest says when members of Richland County Council decided to interview all five teams instead of the top three, as selected by staff, that violated the process that had been set out for the competing teams. Further, it says, County Council did not follow the ranking system that had been publicized.

When the council voted, CECS got four votes to ICA’s seven.

Councilman Paul Livingston, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, had not heard about the protest Thursday night.

“I wasn’t anticipating it because I didn’t think there was any basis for one,” he said. “We’ll just have to see what happens.”

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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