'I've been in this fantasy world for 20 years. You just got here, buddy.' — Alderman Tony Thomas, to Alderman Julian Miller
THIS PAST WEEK'S City Council meeting nearly broke down, in a display remarkable even by that body’s standards.
We often talk about the symbolic role of a Savannah Mayor in wielding the gavel, but Mayor Eddie DeLoach had to literally bang the gavel to maintain order.
The issue was the awarding of the Big Enchilada, the Holy Grail: the enormous “Construction Manager At Risk” contract to build the new Westside Arena.
At $120 million, it is said to be the largest single contract ever awarded in City of Savannah history.
Some separate, smaller arena contracts have already been awarded. One of the first contracts, at $2.8 million, was for who would actually manage the construction (not the same as the Construction Manager At Risk).
Another contract — worth nearly $9 million — went to Atlanta-based Perkins + Will for the design of the Arena. (This, though taxpayers were originally sold the Arena as being a copy of the Infinite Energy Center in Gwinnett County, GA. One assumes the design of that building is accessible for a much lower price.)
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The big construction contract represents not only a massive outlay by the taxpayers, but a huge business opportunity for the subcontractors the winning bidder will eventually have to hire.
And therein lies the rub.
The awarding of contracts for the arena comes at a time when the City of Savannah has revisited its protocol for making sure more minority and disadvantaged subcontractors — as well as more locally-owned firms — are fairly represented in taxpayer funded projects.
It’s a worthy goal, but historically one that’s easier to talk about than accomplish. One issue with construction contracts locally is what was referred to last week as “gaming the system,” i.e. a firm which has minority ownership in name only.
For this and other reasons, during the tenure of City Manager Rob Hernandez, the City this year moved away from the Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise (MWBE) system of contract awards, adopting instead the state and federally recognized “Disadvantaged Business Enterprise” (DBE) model.
Proponents of the Disadvantaged Business model say it is a more truly inclusive model, because it adds subsets such as disabled veteran-owned businesses and contractors with limited access to credit, for example.
The City has accomplished a lot in this area in a short amount of time, and currently has set a goal of at least 18 percent DBE participation in City contracts.
This year alone, the City has already certified 50 new DBEs, in addition to 114 MWBEs already on local books.
But those accomplishments aren’t enough to keep the Arena bid process from being criticized, and possibly delayed.
Bids already went out for the Arena construction management contract using the DBE model, in hopes that the Arena could begin construction next year. Hernandez says there is already a likely winning bid from the three responses garnered.
But Alderwoman Estella Shabazz — whose major platform item in office has been fighting for more access to City contracts for minority and women — sought a last-minute upending of the bid in order to force a vote to reinstall the entire MWBE system.
Hernandez said he is ready to recommend a winning firm and move forward. He reminded Shabazz and Council that changing the terms of the contract would almost certainly mean a substantial delay in the entire project.
“If you amend the policy and decide on a new policy, then that means we will mostly likely have to reject all the bids and go back out, and you’re looking at another six-month delay on the Arena,” Hernandez explained, adding that “it taints the contract award process if we change it midstream.”
Shabazz at one point accused Hernandez of “trying to confuse everybody,” prompting DeLoach to bring down the gavel.
Supported by Van Johnson, Shabazz said that the award of the construction contract didn’t really have to be held up, since her proposal to go back to the MWBE system would only apply to subcontractors — who haven’t been hired yet anyway.
Alderman Tony Thomas agreed, saying “I’d rather take six months to slow it down and do it right than screw it up.”
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In the end, Council opted to go ahead with the process and hope the bid-winner will be amenable to changing the terms of the contract after winning the contract.
In the meantime, Hernandez has been tasked with expanding the scope of the current DBE program.
It’s not the most confidence-building approach one would want when spending an amount of money nearly equal to the entire City discretionary budget for a year.
And it’s a decision that soon-retiring City Attorney Brooks Stillwell didn’t seem 100 percent convinced was fully legal.
Alderman Julian Miller asked pointedly, “Is this even on the agenda today?”
Thomas answered Miller with an accusation that the “group of five” — meaning DeLoach, Miller, and Council members Brian Foster, Bill Durrence, and Carol Bell — had colluded on a majority vote ahead of time, a conspiracy theory frequently espoused by Thomas.
When Thomas accused Miller of “getting aggressive” — an ironic accusation given Thomas’s frequent and sometimes profane personal attacks via social media on constituents, fellow office-holders and members of the media alike — Miller struck back.
“You live in a fantasy world,” Miller said.
Tony Thomas may sometimes live in a world of his own device, but the issues with the Arena are very much a reality.
It looks like the largest single contract in Savannah history might be awarded in a cloud of accusations, mistrust right off the bat between the City and the winning bidder, and not to mention possibly not being able to withstand a lawsuit or two.
Arena proponents want a legacy-builder, but their legacy might end up not being the one they wanted.