Miami-Dade County

Sludge slinging slows Miami-Dade sewer solicitation

 

pmazzei@MiamiHerald.com

The muck continues to fly in a months-long fight between two firms competing to oversee $1.6 billion in federally mandated repairs to Miami-Dade County’s dilapidated sewers.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration has already negotiated a still-undisclosed agreement with AECOM Technical Services. But Gimenez has yet to make a formal recommendation to county commissioners, who must ultimately award the contract, pending the completion of reviews by the mayor’s staff and by the Miami-Dade inspector general.

The additional scrutiny follows a slew of complaints by CH2M Hill, the second-ranked bidder, which has alleged AECOM misrepresented its qualifications to a selection committee. AECOM says the accusations are rubbish.

A federal judge must still sign the mandate, known as a consent decree, requiring Miami-Dade to upgrade its deteriorated pipes. U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno suggested tweaks to the mandate last month.

Meantime, the county has made some fixes on its own. But the stalled process to hire an outside project manager — the lucrative job CH2M and AECOM are vying for — has delayed several repairs, according to the water and sewer department.

Once the consent decree is in place, the county could face fines or a takeover by the feds if it fails to meet the mandate’s deadlines.

Commissioners have complained recently not only about delays to sewer repairs due to a slow procurement process but also to having to referee bid protests for all sorts of contracts, ranging from vending machines to airport concessions. Well-funded lobbyists for losing bidders can appeal directly to the commission.

Contentious bids are nothing new in Miami-Dade, where staffers and lobbyists alike wear high-profile disputes like badges of honor.

“I was involved in the Metrorail-car procurement. I was involved in baggage wrap, part two of what I think were four parts,” said Al Dotson, an attorney and lobbyist for CH2M. “This one is one that has taken probably the most twists and turns that I’ve seen in quite some time.”

Inspector General Mary Cagle, whose office has broad watchdog powers, would not discuss the ongoing review of the sewer bid, which her staff has been following closely for months.

“We understand the impact and the importance of the consent decree,” she said. “We’re trying to be timely, thorough and expeditious.”

Separately, Miami-Dade’s internal services department, which handles bidding, is looking into whether AECOM qualifies as a “responsible” county contractor.

“Our goal is to ultimately get together with the inspector general and compare notes,” said Lester Sola, the department’s director.

County administrators initially requested bids for the project a year ago. But the solicitation was troubled from the start. Gimenez had it re-issued last May — before any bids had come in — because commissioners complained about not having a say in the fine print.

In August, a selection committee ranked CH2M higher than AECOM.

But Gimenez ordered a new committee to re-rank the firms after the inspector general and the executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust said the solicitation had been flawed. The solictation did not expressly prohibit the firms from directly contacting selection committee members and submitting hundreds of additional bid records — as CH2M did, prompting AECOM to cry foul.

In January, the new committee reversed the rankings and put AECOM on top. Since then, CH2M has filed numerous letters claiming AECOM overstated the company’s — and a couple of its key employees’ — work experience with consent decrees. As a result, CH2M argues, AECOM should be disqualified and CH2M should be awarded the contract. Otherwise, CH2M has threatened to sue.

“Whenever a process goes awry — when the process laid out by staff is somehow changed by someone who has not won or doesn’t like the decision that’s made — that’s when you have these elongated procedures,” said Dotson, CH2M’s lawyer.

Miguel De Grandy, an attorney and lobbyist for AECOM who has praised Gimenez’s administration for re-ranking the firms, dismissed CH2M’s accusations as sour grapes and said CH2M has “has done nothing but delay the consent decree process.”

“We’re trying to take the high road as much as we can, but it’s hard with the mudslinging,” he said. “We have actually asked that they be investigated.”

The two companies have filed some 50 letters with the county over the life of the bid, the internal services department estimated.

The dispute has spilled out of County Hall, with Dotson filing a complaint with the ethics commission last month accusing Pete Hernandez, an AECOM vice president, of failing to register as a lobbyist before meeting with county officials prior to the bid.

Ethics investigators concluded last week that none of the activities Hernandez engaged in constituted unregistered lobbying. Dotson characterized the ethics review as incomplete and said he would send investigators additional information to back up his complaint.

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