|By David Hedges, Publisher|
Two contractors threatened legal action after bids were awarded for a project to extend water service to 200 homes in Calhoun County.
Friday's special meeting of the Mt. Zion PSD was the second or third time the bids were awarded, depending on who's doing the counting, and the action did not come without controversy.
Arnoldsburg contractor Ron Lane accused project engineer Jim Hildreth of manipulating the bids.
"Congratulations, Jim," Lane said to Hildreth, who was sitting across the room. "You did a great job stealing a pipeline job.
"My attorneys think there are things that went along with this bidding process that were criminal," Lane said. "It will be tested in court."
Although Lane had said at an earlier meeting he would not sue the PSD or its members, he said Friday they might have to testify.
"We're not done," Lane said. "I think there were major conflicts of interest and bid interference on this project."
Lane accused Hildreth of manipulating the project for his own interest.
"He's being investigated by his own profession, the engineering board, as we speak," Lane said.
Lane claimed Hildreth made contractors use certain subcontractors in which he had a financial interest.
He said one subcontractor told him before the project was bid he knew he had the job.
Another person claimed that projects involving Hildreth only drew a few bidders, in contrast to projects prepared by other engineers.
Hildreth sat in silence during the allegations.
Asked later by a reporter for a response, Hildreth would only say, "No comment."
With a bid of $3.2 million, Lane was the low bidder on the contract to install some 21 miles of water line that would extend water service to customers in areas including Millstone, Chloe and Sand Ridge.
The overall $5.2 million project is considered the largest infrastructure project in Calhoun County history, at least in terms of cost.
Hildreth recommended the bid be awarded to Bruce Allen Pipeline of Harrisville, whose bid exceeded Lane's by more than $200,000.
The only reason Hildreth has given publicly for recommending the higher bid was "risk management."
A separate contract for a 100,000-gallon storage tank is also mired in controversy.
The tank bid was awarded to Mid-Atlantic Storage Systems Inc. of Washington Courthouse, Ohio, the only bidder recognized by the PSD, for $319,600.
The only other bid, from Welding Inc. of Charleston, was not opened because Hildreth said it did not include a $25 postage fee.
Welding Inc. officer Bruce Caswell said Hildreth is the only engineer that requires the fee.
He has asked the PSD to consider his bid, but his requests have been denied.
Caswell said at Friday's meeting he would be seeking a court injunction as early as Monday.
"This job will not go forward if I have anything to do with it," Caswell told the PSD.
When bids were opened July 2, Lane submitted the low bid of $3,233,033. That was $200,033 below Allen's bid.
At a meeting July 13, PSD members Shirley Mace and Sharon Postalwait recognized Lane as the low bidder. Mace said she made a motion to award the bid to Lane at that time, but Postalwait later said she had a different understanding of the motion.
A third member, Della Nichols, was not present. She later resigned and was replaced by Roscoe Gainer.
When they met again Aug. 10, Hildreth asked contractors to extend their bids to give him time to make a recommendation.
At a special meeting Aug. 31, Hildreth recommended the bid go to Allen.
Nichols had resigned the day before that meeting, which left Mace, who wanted to award the bid to Lane, and Postalwait, who wanted to accept Hildreth's recommendation, in a deadlock.
The Calhoun County Commission appointed Gainer to the vacant seat before the next meeting on Sept. 14, when the members voted to rescind the motion of July 13 and award the bid to Lane. Mace and Gainer supported the motion, with Postalwait abstaining.
At the same meeting, PSD members voted in support of a resolution adopted by the county commission asking for an investigation of Mt. Zion PSD operations by the W.Va. Public Service Commission (see separate story).
Most of last Friday's PSD meeting took place behind closed doors, in a series of executive sessions with PSD members and their attorney, Tom Whittier.
More than 30 people were on hand at the Arnoldsburg Community Building when the special meeting began at 6 p.m.
A total of four executive sessions were called, which consumed almost three hours of the meeting that lasted about 3-1/2 hours in all.
Gainer apologized to the crowd for all the closed sessions, which he said were "necessary to do the things we have to do."
After two hours of meetings behind closed doors, PSD members awarded the contract for the water line.
"I really don't know what to do," Mace said. "But thinking about people who really need the water, I move the contract go to Bruce Allen."
Gainer said he would "reluctantly" second the motion, which then passed unanimously.
When questioned by members of the public, Whittier explained that the PSD received a legal opinion that Lane's bid extension was not acceptable.
Lane told the PSD he would extend his bid without an increase in price.
One person in the audience said it was a shame a local contractor could not get the job.
"You have so many in this area who are laid off," she said.
The PSD members also voted unanimously to award the storage tank bid to Mid-Atlantic.
The board also agreed to approve an addendum to Hildreth's contract, increasing his fee more than $100,000 to a total of $530,000.
PSD members also approved agreements with the bond counsel, Goodwin & Goodwin, and local counsel, Whittier.
Afterward, Gainer, the newest member, admitted he had never seen the agreements with the bond counsel and local attorney that were voted on that night.
Whittier was able to produce only one of the agreements, which, in spite of a request, was not made available to the public for review.