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Report takes issue with park district's handling of fields

By NATALIE MARTIN
Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Editor
November 6, 2013 · Updated 1:33 PM
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Three Vashon Park District commissioners elected this week will inherit an agency in debt from a $2 million sports fields project that has been plagued by mismanagement and extreme cost overruns, the details of which were recently outlined by the district’s fields Oversight Committee chair.

In a five-page report compiled last month, islander Janet Quimby, who previously managed contracts and risk management for the Port of Tacoma, details multiple areas she believes her extensive voluntary research shows the small district erred in the handling of the fields project. In the report, which Quimby emailed to The Beachcomber last month,  Quimby contends that district officials did not follow state laws governing public works projects, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to contractors without contracts protecting the district’s financial interests — and sometimes with no contracts at all — and allowed the planned $1.1 million project to balloon to over $2 million without formal hearings or votes.

Quimby — who has also been a consultant for the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, a nonprofit that provides resources for local government agencies — said much of what she found in project records she requested earlier this year was “shocking,” but insisted her report should be a learning tool for the agency. While she hasn’t presented it to the current park board, she has been advising the district on the fields project for months and the document will be available to commissioners who wish to see it.

“When I say there are laws they should have complied with, it’s a roadmap for the future,” she said. “I would hope next year’s board is committed to improving their safeguards of taxpayer money.”

Quimby also drafted a slate of recommendations on how she believes the district can revise its policies and procedures around capital projects to be in line with best practices and state law. She said board members had the recommendations and she hopes they will vote on them at a future meeting.

“I think we’ve made some progress with the new general manager and Oversight Committee … but there’s still more to do,” she said.

Park district General Manager Elaine Ott, who hadn’t seen Quimby’s report until a Beachcomber reporter showed it to her, said she could not confirm the details in the document without significant research, but said Quimby is knowledgeable about public works laws and that fields work in 2013 has been above board in part because of Quimby’s help.

“I was not aware of the specific details,” Ott said of the report, “but there was no surprise with the broader issues.”

Ott added that while she hasn’t had time to examine fields records since she joined the district in February, she could see how such an analysis might be helpful.

“I think if it answered questions that were still burning in the public’s need to know, there would be value,” she said.

“If we ever decided to take on a public works project, I would have to know what went wrong so we didn’t make the same mistakes again, if indeed it was found we did make mistakes,” she added.

However, park district commissioner David Hackett, one of the lead champions of the fields project, said he wasn’t interested in seeing Quimby’s report and declined to comment to The Beachcomber anymore on the district’s management of the project, saying there was no point in “beating a dead horse.”

Hackett, who did not run for reelection this fall, said he thought Quimby went beyond her role on the Oversight Committee when she prepared the report and that he would question its accuracy.

“Janet is thorough and knows what she’s doing, but she is also driven by her opinions,” Hackett said.

He noted that in any project there are “things that go wrong and things that go right,” he said.

“The fields will be well used by the community and will be for 30 years. … We learned a lot in the process, and I’ll let the final product speak for itself,” he said.

In her report, Quimby says the fields project apparently started off poorly when the district failed to approve completed plans, specifications and cost estimates, as required by state law. Indeed, a state auditor in February also reported that the district could not produce those initial plans, along with other project documentation required by law.

The district also ignored state law when selecting project consultants, Quimby said. There’s no record that the district advertised its requirements and gave firms the opportunity to be selected for the work, as required by law. Instead, she said, a local architect apparently selected the project’s design team, and the agency accepted quoted consultant fees without attempting to negotiate.

“No experienced public agency would simply accept the first proposal offered, or let the consultant define the scope of work,” she wrote in the report.

Quimby goes on to cite examples where both project consultants and construction contractors either did work without written contracts — only verbal agreements — or worked under contracts without the required provisions that would protect the district from paying more than originally agreed upon or assuming risks. Multiple consultants were paid thousands more than first contracted for; however, change orders or other documentation justifying the increases were missing from park district records.

A design firm, for instance, had a written contract in the amount of $48,000, but was ultimately paid more than $80,000. A fencing company contracted for less than $12,000 worth of work was paid nearly $18,000, and an irrigation contract at about $74,000 was paid more than $109,000. Overall, construction contractors were paid 22 percent more than originally hired for.

“Cost overruns are endemic on this project, yet there is not a single signed change order in the project files, and no change orders were approved by the Vashon Park District board for work completed through 2012,” Quimby wrote.

While the state recommends architect and engineering fees be about 9 percent of the project total, Quimby says the district spent 27 percent of the planned project cost, or about $307,000, on such services.

She added that many of the contacts she saw didn’t include bonds required by the state and lacked provisions protecting the district from lien claims or unpaid taxes of contractors. She emphasized that she took no issues with the contractors, whom she called well-qualified local firms, but wrote the issue was the park district’s “failure to follow state law and protect our interests in its management of the Fields Project.”

“I realized these basic internal controls I’m used to seeing professionally were not there,” Quimby said in an interview.

Keith Putnam, a longtime architect and another member of the Oversight Committee, said he was surprised at “the magnitude of problems” he read about in Quimby’s report.

“It just looks like an awful mess and a lot of money was spent,” he said. “They never had a clear agreement and never had a clear scope of work. It’s very hard to say where everything went wrong.”

Putnam, who designed the current Vashon High School building, said he believes the district underestimated what it could build the fields for in the beginning and likely would have done better by hiring a general contractor to manage the project rather than trying to manage a multitude of different contractors working on the fields.

Indeed, a state auditor found earlier this year that the district inappropriately broke the project down into small bid packages, rather than larger ones, “with the intent of avoiding competitive bid requirements,” according to the audit report.

“One of the reasons the price was hard to control was you gave it out piecemeal to different people and no one person was responsible for anything,” Putnam said.

Wendy Braicks, who was director at the park district through mid-2011, said she hadn’t seen any red flags with the fields project before she left the agency, though she did raise concerns about the district’s ambitious fundraising goal.

“The only concern I had was a large fundraising component, which the board was confident they could reach,” she said.

As for the approved plans and project documentation the district has been unable to produce, Braicks was baffled, saying she believed the district did everything above board while she was there.

“I don’t know what the auditor was specifically looking for, but I certainly believe we had information available to anyone and were following what we thought was the correct procedure,” she said.

Joe Wald, the current board chair and another champion of the fields project, did not return a call from The Beachcomber, but LuAnn Branch, a commissioner who ran for reelection this fall, said she, too, felt baffled by what went wrong with the project and would be interested in seeing Quimby’s report.

“I’d love to know what she found and compare that with my own experience,” she said.

Branch said she began seeing red flags with the fields project after the district, under former director Jan Milligan, ended the services of project manager Tom Ossinger, with the Seattle-based Bottomline Construction Consultants, something she believed was a cost-cutting measure at the time.

After that, Branch said, she didn’t believe the board received the detailed reports on the project it had before. Once she realized things were going wrong, she said, it was too late to stop the project.

Branch said commissioners Hackett and Wald were closest to the project, and looking back, she believes they and other park officials took on more than they could handle.

“I think what we ended up having was two commissioners who had very good intentions and good hearts, but totally overestimated the complexity of managing a construction project of this magnitude,” she said.

For her part, Quimby said she is cynical about seeing park district officials held accountable, but hopes her findings could be a learning tool for the future.

Some work is left on the fields to complete county permitting requirements — an area that Quimby’s report didn’t touch on — and the district will be paying its fields-related debt for at least the next two years.

“I’m very discouraged because I enjoy using a variety of the parks, kayaking, the trails, the fields, Ober Park, and I really value the programs,” she said. “I want us to have a strong and credible park district.”

Lessons from the fields could be applied to smaller capital projects, Quimby said, and she hopes the district will also update its outdated policies and procedures.

“These same problems can arise from a $40,000 pool improvement,” she said, “and we have aging facilities.”

 


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