The St. Charles Parish Council voted against hiring Sizeler Thompson Brown Architects to design a new community center in Luling because of questions about the selection process.
Now, the administration will have to begin what they called a time-consuming process all over again.
The community center has been a highly sought after project by Parish President V.J. St. Pierre and would cost around $4.3 million. Because the building could be constructed to withstand 150 mile per hour winds, and because it can hold 1,000 people, it would also be used as a temporary shelter after storms.
Because of that ability, the parish has already been allocated a $4.8 million community development block grant as part of the Hurricane Gustav/Ike disaster recovery program. The land for the center was donated by the Esperanza Land Co.
Since the parish would use federal money to pay an architect for the project, the administration had to select a firm using a qualifications-based selection process.
Grants Officer Holly Fonseca said that a panel of five parish employees, which included Chief Operating Officer Rusty Walker, Purchasing Director Bobby Donaldson, Parks and Recreation Director Duane Foret, Fonseca and a parish engineer, individually reviewed architectural firms that had applied for the job.
The list was eventually whittled down to five firms, and the panel then interviewed them and gave scores based on several different factors, including prior work.
Sizeler Thompson Brown received the top mark from the panel.
But when it came to voting on whether or not to approve the panel’s decision, some council members felt that they hadn’t received enough information on the selection process.
“We are not getting information on this until late in the game,” Councilman Dennis Nuss said. Adding that he doesn’t understand why the council would vote to approve the decision if they weren’t privy to how the firm was selected in the first place.
Councilman Shelley Tastet echoed those concerns and asked whether a council member could have been chosen for the selection panel.
Fonseca said she purposely avoided asking an elected official to serve on the panel because if they had received campaign donations from any of the firms, they would have had a conflict of interests.
Fonseca said that two of the current council members had received campaign donations from a couple of the firms that applied for the job.
After the meeting, Tastet said that since Fonseca knew who those two members were, then she should have asked one of the seven other council members to serve on the panel.
“We were elected to represent the people, and the people had no representation on that panel,” Tastet said. “The panel was made up of appointees.
“Who do you think they are going to choose? They’re going to pick who (St. Pierre) wants.”
Fonseca did say that she alerted all council members through an e-mail four weeks ago to tell them that Sizeler Thompson Brown had received the top score from the panel.
Another issue with Sizeler Thompson Brown for some of the council members is the firm’s reported ties to former Jefferson Parish chief administrator Tim Whitmer.
Whitmer’s business, Lagniappe Industries, sold several insurance policies to a partner in Sizeler Thompson Brown.
Thomas Brown told the council that his firm was cleared of all wrong doing and their work on the community center would not be interrupted due to any investigations.
Councilman Terry Authement said that Sizeler Thompson Brown is well-qualified to design the center, and that the only issue would be the public’s perception of the firm being awarded the contract.
He, along with Councilman Paul Hogan, urged the council to approve the contract so that the community center could move ahead. But when the voting was finished, only Authement, Hogan and Councilwoman Carolyn Schexnaydre had voted to do so.
Fonseca said that the administration will have to begin the process all over again, but that nothing will change in how they decide the best firm for the job because the process is mandated by the federal government. She added that nothing will prevent Sizeler Thompson Brown from reapplying.
Tastet said that talks are ongoing with the administration and that the council would like to have a committee meeting on the community center in order to gain more information.
“We do want to get the center built and get things moving in the right direction,” he said. “The council just wants to have some input.”