Because Augusta has changed some purchasing practices, the city asked a judge Tuesday to lift the injunction preventing it from proceeding with the $18 million renovation of the Augusta-Richmond County Municipal Building.
Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet said he would decide within a few days whether the city has done enough to bring its method of awarding major construction contracts within the bounds of state law and city ordinances.
In September, Overstreet found that the city practices weren’t legal, and he granted a request for an injunction in the Richmond County Superior Court lawsuit against the city filed by John Z. Speer Jr. and the Augusta-Richmond County Property Owners Association.
Overstreet agreed with the arguments given by the plaintiff’s attorney, Jack Long, that the city has ignored state and local law governing how to award public construction contracts larger than $100,000.
Since 2005, the city has awarded major construction contracts through a method it contends gets the best quality and saves money – a construction manager at-risk.
State law allows a city to use methods other than competitive bidding to find the best services at the lowest cost, but a city must follow certain rules.
On Tuesday, Jim Ellison – a private attorney whom the Augusta Commission hired to represent the city in the case in addition to the in-house general counsel – said Overstreet’s order has been reviewed and the city has addressed most, if not all, of the “deficiencies” listed.
The procurement ordinance has been amended to allow the city to use the construction manager at-risk method, Ellison said. A written justification for not using competitive bids for the municipal building renovation has been entered. The city amended its request so that the company hired as the construction manager at-risk for the municipal building renovations must obtain labor and materials through competitive bidding, Ellison said.
The plaintiff’s attorney countered that the city is still in violation of the law because its selection process was based on subjective criteria and not objective reasoning. For the municipal building renovation, how much the city will pay for the construction manager at-risk’s services was worth only 15 of a possible 100 points, Long said.
A selection committee scored Turner Construction of Atlanta the highest for the job. The commission hasn’t voted yet on accepting the recommendation for the $18 million special purpose sales tax item approved by voters in 2009.
Ellison countered that the law doesn’t say what value has to be assigned to price. That is up to the city commission, he said.
Long argued that the city’s method is no different from bid-rigging when cost isn’t a concern. If the judge vacates the injunction, it will only encourage the city to continue with illegal practices and waste taxpayer money, he said.
Overstreet told both sides he worries that he will end up being the “contract judge” who must review and approve any future contacts. The city has acknowledged it must put in writing why competitive bidding won’t be used. So long as they do it publicly and on the record, someone can be held accountable if the deal goes bad, he said.