County selects international bridge project consultant in heated meeting
By ALBERTO TOMÁS HALPERN
PRESIDIO COUNTY – Amid heated debate, confusion, and lots of head shaking, Presidio County officials Tuesday voted to enter into contract negotiations with S&B Infrastructure of McAllen as consultant for the expansion of the international bridge between Presidio and Ojinaga.
The county, with Ciudad Ojinaga, Chihuahua state, and Mexico plan to add two lanes to the existing two-lane international span. Cross border traffic has increase over the years.
The process begins with a presidential permit. Mexico needs one, too.
Two other firms were considered for the $1.8 million planning project to secure the permit: Structural Engineering Associates (SEA) of San Antonio, in partnership with Frank X. Spencer & Associates of El Paso and formerly of Pecos and Presidio; and Raba-Kistner Consultants of San Antonio. Both consulting entities have worked with the county before on earlier portions of the project.
Commissioners and county Judge Paul Hunt had planned on meeting in executive session to discuss, review and score the presentations.
Executive sessions are typically reserved for personnel matters, property acquisitions, and pending or existing litigation. A narrow opening in the Texas Open Meetings Act allows counties to enter into executive session to discuss issues relating to a contract being negotiated.
In order to do this, however, commissioners would have to unanimously vote that deliberating in open session would have a detrimental effect on commissioners and a third party, and they would also need a written determination from the county attorney.
County Attorney John Fowlkes said Hunt didn’t give him enough time to research the matter, and he questioned whether he would have concluded an executive session was needed in this case.
Commissioner Felipe Cordero said he wanted to meet behind closed doors. “I think we can go into executive session on something of this magnitude.”
Hunt told Cordero that without the county attorney’s blessing, a closed session might trigger a Texas Open Meetings Act violation.
Commissioners wanted to discuss the matter behind closed doors to avoid any awkward moments in front of representatives of the consulting firms who were present. Without going into executive session, commissioners couldn’t force the firms’ representatives from leaving the public meeting.
To help keep the meeting on track and to avoid any uncomfortable discussion, Raba-Kistner liaison Sterry Butcher of Marfa volunteered to exit the courtroom if the other firms’ representatives were willing to do so. All agreed. Butcher’s brother Allan Butcher is the firm’s contract senior consultant.
Commissioners decided to submit to Hunt their individual scores for the firms and from that Hunt would come up with an average score for each firm, ideally to vote to enter into negotiations with the firm that had the highest average.
After taking a quick smoking break while Hunt crunched numbers, commissioners came back to hear the results.
“There seemed to be a wide range of reports,” Hunt said, “But I did notice in particular that one of the commissioners had three times the spread of high and low scores of anybody else. A very wise way of proceeding.”
S&B received an average score of 81.6, SEA received 83.6 and Raba-Kistner an average score of 71.
“Based on those average scores we could make a selection I suppose,” Hunt said, adding that, “it was a little odd” that one of the commissioners gave a wide range of high and low scores, greatly impacting the average scores for the firms.
Going into more detail, Hunt reported that three of the five individual score sheets gave S&B the highest scores, two of the five individual score sheets gave SEA the highest scores, and none of the five gave Raba-Kistner the highest score.
Discussing the average scores, Commissioner Carlos Armendariz said, “That’s it,” prompting Hunt to ponder, “The one thing about taking the average is, and I can’t help but notice that on one of these” had such a wide spread, saying that it was a “radically different way of scoring.” Hunt then questioned whether using the average scores was a fair way of proceeding and suggested maybe taking a different route.
Armendariz pressed using the average scores. “Averages. That’s the way it is. What else can we do?”
Hunt said to Armendariz that the court isn’t required to use the averages, and given the wide range of scores by one commissioner may distort the true wish of the court.
At this point, members of the court were beginning to become visibly frustrated on how to proceed.
Refering to SEA, which had the highest average score, Armendariz said, “If they have the highest score that’s it.”
Hunt replied, “It’s only it if we agree on one set of scores for the three outfits.”
Cordero said, “Either way the percentages tell the story as good as the numbers.”
Hunt continued pressing the issue of the scoring method, saying there is a discrepancy in the average scores. “They are distorted,” Hunt said.
“I don’t understand,” Armendariz said. Commissioner Eloy Aranda helped to explain the, “huge difference in spread between” the firms’ scores.
Armendariz made a motion to enter into negotiations with the firm that had the highest average, SEA. Cordero seconded.
Before the vote, Commissioner Frank ‘Buddy’ Knight reiterated that S&B received the highest scores from the majority of the court and suggested that the court enter into negotiations with the firm with the highest individual scores, S&B.
The court voted. Cordero and Armendariz voted in the affirmative, essentially to enter into negotiations with SEA, while Aranda, Knight, and Hunt voted against, defeating the motion.
Moving on, Hunt said, “Is there another way to go to get a score?” “What’s the use of getting another score, it’s going to be the same,” Armendariz said.
“There’s use for us as a selection committee to come to an agreement,” Hunt said.
Armendariz then suggested dividing the contract between the three firms to give them all a piece of the pie.
“That’s not the way we’re going to proceed,” Hunt said.
Hunt suggested throwing out the highest and lowest scores for each firm and coming out with a new average. Asking commissioners if anyone was interested in proceeding that way Knight agreed.
Upset at the way things went, Cordero reached for his belongings and said, “Well, I’m going to get out of here.”
“I’m concerned about that Felipe,” Hunt said, “We’re concerned about the process and concerned about the agenda,” Hunt continued, trying to keep Cordero from leaving.
Cordero sat back down.
Armendariz then suggested that each commissioner should choose the firm that they wanted. Armendariz and Frank Spencer, of Frank X. Spencer & Associates, are first cousins.
“Any volunteers,” Armendariz asked to a return of silence. “Who wants who,” Armendariz said referring to the firms, “That question can be put to me and I’ll answer it.”
Throwing out the highest and lowest scores and coming up with a new average score for the firms gave S&B the highest score, SEA the second highest and Raba-Kistner the third.
“We seem to be at an impasse and I don’t have a dog in this fight,” Knight said.
Head shaking abounded by frustrated commissioners.
After more discussion and disagreement, and even a bit of confusion in the court, Knight made a motion to vote to enter into negotiations based on the new average scores, essentially agreeing to negotiate with S&B. Commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of the motion with Knight, Aranda, and Hunt supporting the motion and Cordero and Armendariz dissenting.
Story filed under: Top Stories