Council at odds over hiring

Coun. Andy Stradling (foreground) and Coun. Laurie Charlton were opposed to
Coun. Andy Stradling (foreground) and Coun. Laurie Charlton were opposed to 'rubber stamping' staff's choice of engineer without more details about the selection process than the sparse information provided in council's package.
— image credit: Andrew Bennett photo

Council was divided on Monday night over city staff’s recommendation to hire ISL Engineering to produce a refined design and cost estimate for the Washington-Columbia infrastructure upgrades.

Ultimately, the motion to support staff’s top pick out of 10 qualified firms was defeated by a tied vote of 3-3, with Coun. Andy Stradling, Coun. Laurie Charlton, and Coun. Kathy Moore opposed and Coun. Hanne Smith absent. Their reason was not disagreement so much as confusion: They wanted more information to understand how staff made their decision.

Nobody denied ISL’s excellent qualifications — the firm is perhaps best known for their high profile work on the Sea-to-Sky Highway — but several felt that the ranking was not sufficiently transparent to distinguish ISL from other equally capable firms who could potentially do the job for less money.

Council had authorized up to $250,000 for engineering services, but staff’s ISL recommendation suggested a budget of $300,000 for the final class A estimate, with $50,000 or more going to a new class C estimate, even though such an estimate was already done by WSA Engineering three years ago.

CAO Victor Kumar explained that ISL had offered to consider new ways of approaching the problem, so a new class C estimate was required.

But this information was not in council’s package, nor were several other criteria that influenced the staff choice.

Stradling concluded: “There was nothing in any of these proposals to suggest which of these companies had the resources available to deliver this work in a timely fashion at a cost that is well within our budget.”

After the defeat, Stradling forwarded a motion, which passed, to request that staff provide more information on the top four companies, in particular, “what’s the cost, what’s the schedule, what’s the deliverable?” Stradling asked.

Stradling’s managerial work with Teck has given him a lot of experience in assessing big engineering contracts, and he was concerned with what he saw before council.

“I couldn’t come to any agreement with the recommendation because all I was reading was a bunch of standard brochures from companies that are all qualified and not one of them stood out,” he said.

“What gives me more concern,” he continued, “when we’re looking at a $300,000 contract with management of a $6-million contract, the appropriate management of the engineering contractor is critical. I’m not confident that in our evaluation, or in our staff, we have that person who’s going to manage this contractor.”

“This is a cost-plus estimate,” he explained. “There’s no schedule provided, no cost estimate provided, no hours provided. As such, the city is incurring a risk where the contractor manages the job and there’s no accountability. What’s the process for reporting weekly on the hours spent on the job and progress towards a goal?”

Mayor Greg Granstrom, clearly frustrated, claimed that Stradling and others displayed a lack of trust in staff.

“There may not be every nut and bolt in this report,” he said, but “staff’s recommendation has been put to us by considerable research.”

Moore responded, “We’re not elected to rubber stamp staff’s decisions. It’s important for us to understand. I’m quite confused about what we’re buying here.”

Ten firms submitted qualified proposals for the city’s RFQ (request for qualifications) and four were short-listed. Staff then reviewed costs, interviewed the four, consulted with the Ministry of Transportation — an ever-present partner in this project if all goes well — and checked references.

But Moore noted that references were only checked for ISL.

“When I used to hire people,” she said, “I’d check the references on a number of finalists, particularly when we have a situation when some of them were very, very close in points.”

Coun. Jill Spearn echoed these concerns and added, “I had questions around the data, and how we got there. I’m wary of the numbers.”

The staff report explained that the firms were ranked by four staff members on seven criteria, but only the total score for each firm from each reviewer was given in council’s package.

The reviewers — building inspector Jason Ward, city planner Mike Maturo, assistant planner Marie-Ange Fournier-Beck, and manager of finance Deb Timm — gave scores on the following criteria: 20 points for ongoing and cost-effective public sector work, 20 points for capital planning, grant writing, and civil engineering, 15 points for understanding municipal laws and processes, 15 points for planning street redesigns and improvements, 10 points for traffic and structural engineering, 10 points  for surveying and mapping, and 10 points for pavement management.

To the consternation of Moore, Stradling, Charlton, and Spearn, no break-down of the scores was supplied and staff gave council only two options: contract with ISL or abandon the project altogether.

A cursory inspection of the scores also reveals some inconsistencies. For example, Stantec received low grades from three reviewers (between 66 and 74), but Timm gave them zero. At the other end of the scale, Timm gave two firms 100 and two firms 98.

Spearn asked pointedly: “What experience does Deb Timm have in justifying engineering contracts? I’m just asking that question, I’m not saying that she doesn’t.”

Spearn also felt that Group MMM “really spoke to Rossland and understood our community. How [do] you rank that?”

ISL’s nearest offices are Lethbridge and Burnaby — all the other firms have offices in Kelowna, Cranbrook, Nelson, Castlegar, or Trail, and Focus Corporation Ltd. maintains a permanent office in Rossland.

Focus received average scores from three reviewers, but a very low 35 from Maturo with no further indications to help councillors make sense of this result.

Charlton noted that the top firms received scores that differed by meaninglessly small amounts, so were effectively equal.   He also pointed out that the scope of the engineering work is still ambiguous: “We still haven’t decided what, exactly, we want them to do.”

Following Stradling’s request for information on cost, schedule, and scope, the decision on which firm to hire for the Columbia-Washington project will be postponed until the next regular meeting on April 11.

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