City, commission face lawsuit

Case is filed over Augusta's procurement policy

The city will have to defend its purchasing practices in court.

A lawsuit was filed Monday in Richmond County Superior Court by John Z. Speer Jr. and the Augusta-Richmond County, Georgia, Property Owners Association against Augusta and the Augusta Commission. It accuses the city of violating its ordinances governing the awarding of construction contracts.

Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet, who is assigned to preside over the case, signed a temporary restraining order Monday that prohibits the city from entering into any contracts for the remodeling of the municipal building. A May 3 court hearing is set for Overstreet to determine whether the restraining order should be lifted or made permanent.

The plaintiffs contend the city has made selections based on personal opinions rather than unbiased, factual judgment.

The use of subjective rather than objective criteria, the suit contends, violates state and local law governing competitive bidding, needlessly costs taxpayers more money and encourages cronyism.

Specifically, the lawsuit contends that the recent bid given to R.J. Griffin & Co. to serve as the construction manager at risk for an airport project was not awarded after a fair, competitive bid process. The project is to build a terminal for private planes at Augusta Regional Airport.

The commission voted 6-5, with Mayor Deke Copenhaver breaking the tie, on March 30 to extend the contract. Although the amount to be paid to Griffin isn't included in public documents available online, the city's request for proposals budgeted the project at $2.5 million, less than the $4.7 million awarded on March 30.

The lawsuit contends the city's criterion to decide who would get the contract was based in part on who the project managers would be, how well the company representative pitched his proposed to the city's Selection Committee, and how well he answered any questions.

Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles, one of the five to vote against the awarding the airport bid, called it "eye-opening."

"We're not going by price; we're going by a very subjective process," he said.

Said Commissioner Joe Jackson, who also voted against the bid: "Why is price 25 percent of the point system? Price should be 90 percent of the score."

Said Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who voted against the bid: "You've got the superintendent of a construction company being interviewed. His experience is on-the-job training, not in being interviewed."

The Selection Committee includes a representative or two from the affected city department, a member from the city's finance and purchasing departments, and a consultant with Heery International, the manager of the city's sales tax projects, according to City Administrator Fred Russell.

"Who qualifies them to tell us who's qualified to do the job?" said Commissioner Grady Smith, another who voted against the airport bid and an advocate for putting area contractors to work. "It's too easy, the system they've got now, to pick and choose who they want."

Commissioner Corey Johnson defended the city's system of awarding bids.

"We have several systems that we use, and we have a Procurement Department that's very knowledgeable about which system can be used in certain situations," he said, attributing the suit to possible sour grapes among losing local bidders.

"It's just these companies are not as big as some of the companies that come out of Atlanta," he continued. "These (local) guys are getting work, they may just not be getting as much work as they used to get."

According to city procurement records, Augusta has used the "construction management at risk" procedure since 2005. According to the American Institute of Architects, this procurement practice allows the city to pick a construction manager early in the process to work with the architect during the design stage. The construction manager at risk gives the city a guaranteed maximum price and coordinates all the subcontract work.

According to the lawsuit, the construction management at risk procedure isn't allowed under Georgia law.

Using Potts Construction as construction manager at risk for the new judicial building saved the city $5 million, Russell said.

On Monday, the commission's Engineering Committee approved a recommendation to extend a $1.29 million contract to Turner Construction Co. to serve as the construction manager at risk for the municipal building renovation project.

According to city procurement records, several companies have been hired to serve as managers at risk since 2005. Recent projects include the TEE Center and the parking deck, the new administration building for the sheriff's office, the new Augusta Judicial Center and John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse, and various projects at Fort Gordon.

Reach Sandy Hodson or Susan McCord at (706) 724-0851.

Read the lawsuit

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