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New London City Councilors Michael Passero and Martin Olsen are raising legitimate concerns about the project to rebuild and expand the animal shelter at Bates Wood. Conversely, Council President Wade Hyslop, in voting against a motion for further investigation, was too quick in concluding "the project was properly handled."
At issue is whether the Public Works Department adhered to the city ordinance requiring competitive bidding. It is an important ordinance, one intended to help the city get the lowest price, but also to make sure the process is free of favoritism.
However, it appears Councilor Passero erred in offering a motion asking the City Council to refer the matter to the state Office of the Attorney General for investigation. A spokesman for the office said Tuesday it has no jurisdiction concerning municipal bidding ordinances. The Public Works Committee approved the motion 2-1 Monday.
The better option is for the council as a whole to demand more information and answers from the Finizio administration about the animal shelter project. Only then can it make a fair evaluation whether further review by some outside agency is necessary.
On Tuesday, Mayor Finizio asked Law Director Jeffrey T. Londregan to review the matter. His findings should help inform the discussion.
The city has so far spent about $162,900 repairing the shelter damaged during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. It is nearing completion. Finance Director Jeff Smith said the project is eligible for 75 percent reimbursement through FEMA.
According to city purchasing rules, the city can negotiate for purchases of less than $3,000 without any bid process. Purchases from $3,000 to $20,000 require city officials to solicit three written proposals. Finally, purchases or projects in excess of $20,000 require a formal bid process with written specifications and public notification.
In the case of the animal shelter, Public Works Director Tim Hanser said his department acted as the general contractor, eliminating the need to bid the entire project. What concerns Councilors Passero and Olsen is whether Mr. Hanser's department followed purchasing rules in paying the many subcontractors and supply vendors used to complete the job.
For example, the city paid Thomas Garbati Builders of Waterford for about $62,100 worth of work, well in excess of the $20,000 figure for a formal bid process. Mr. Hanser notes, however, that Garbati handled various facets of the project, each under the $20,000 threshold.
Similarly, the work of other contractors collectively exceeded purchasing thresholds, but the invoices for individual jobs they did fell under the limits. Mr. Hanser said his department solicited work as the project went along, and it was only in hindsight that he realized the work collectively surpassed ordinance bidding limits.
Also unclear from the paperwork supplied to the committee is whether the department followed the requirement for three written proposals before awarding work from $3,000 to $20,000. Mr. Hanser told us he was willing to review the process, determine if mistakes were made or corners cut, and make corrections moving forward.
The council should fulfill its oversight role in determining what happened here.