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Monday, 17 August 2015 12:09

Protest Gave Estero Boulevard Stumbling Start

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When Lee County officials were hand-picking the firm they wanted to run the $50 million, decade-long Estero Boulevard project at Fort Myers Beach one of the things they said they needed was someone who could handle the constant attention such a high-profile project would command.

That part they got right.

The road construction project itself is in its infancy, but the utility work paired with it is already producing a huge traffic mess and drew a standing-room-only crowd to Fort Myers Beach town hall a week ago. If the road project produces the same angst county officials and commissioners will have only themselves to blame.

Chris-Tel Construction, the local company that will manage the road project, was actually ranked dead last when the first county review committee looked at proposals in the summer of 2014. Assistant county manager Doug Meurer turned the ranking on its head, however, and nudged first the ranking committee and then a selection committee to Chris-Tel.

The selection outraged companies bypassed in the process, including Wright Construction, which filed a bid protest and even considered a lawsuit when county commissioners stood by what even they agreed was a deeply flawed process.

“I think the entire construction community knows what happened,” said Andy Powell, Wright Construction vice president. “All the proposers were shafted in the process. It was fairly clear what was done.”

The project would re-build Estero Boulevard, the main drag in the county’s tourism lifeblood barrier island town of Fort Myers Beach. It’s a $50 million road project, to be funded in increments every two years over the next decade. It will include utility work approved in a referendum by Beach voters in 2007 when current Commissioner Larry Kiker was the town’s mayor.

The project itself faces enough hurdles without the bid protest. Numerous Beach businesses have encroached with parking and even building into public right-of-way needed for the project.

Estero Boulevard routinely becomes a 6-mile parking lot during the busy winter and spring season. The work has brought that kind of traffic in August.

“It’s going as might be anticipated,” Town Manager Don Stilwell said. “It takes a short period of time to work the kinks out, and I think it’s getting better.”

County officials refuse to discuss the bid protest or the awarding of the work to Chris-Tel. In a bid protest hearing on October 28 attorney Trent Cotney argued the award to Chris-Tel Construction was a predetermined conclusion.

Cotney claimed Meurer influenced the 3-person county short-list and selection committee to select Chris-Tel despite the fact the committee initially ranked last among the six seeking the work.

Meurer did not attend the bid protest hearing and will not comment on the pending bid protest. To this date the only comment from the county has been from public relations department manager Betsy Clayton.

“The selection of ChrisTel went through a competitive negotiation process. The BoCC approved the recommended candidate for the project. The project is moving forward. All discussion between Lee County staff members was held during public selection committee meetings, was recorded and was all part of the public record.”

That’s not the way Powell sees it.

“The county never really had to respond to anything,” he said. “Doug Meurer was never placed in the position to have to respond to anything. They never responded to any of the issues we brought up.”

The selection committee was comprised of three men who are his subordinates. He is heard on the tape of first the short-list meeting and then the selection meeting pushing for Chris-Tel.

At the bid protest hearing three other county higher-ups, one of Meurer’s co-workers and two of his subordinates, backed him up. That, according to Cotney, is no surprise.

Cotney said that simply listening to the tapes of the two committee meetings it clear to him.

“Any reasonable person would conclude the selection of Chris-Tel was a foregone conclusion,” Cotney said.

Berk Edwards, attorney for Chris-Tel, said if that’s true the whole process was corrupt.

“If it’s a foregone conclusion then people are pre-decided,” he said. “On the take is a harsh way to say it, but that’s what foregone conclusion means,” he said.

But Cotney pointed to the initial committee rankings. Two of the three committee members selected Wright first and one picked them second. All three picked Chris-Tel last.

“Chris-Tel was in last place, and they were in last place for a reason,” he said.

In fact the short-list committee was expected to ‘keep’ only three firms. Meurer urged them to add Chris-Tel to the list, citing his ‘experience and knowledge of personnel’.

“I’m going to maybe try to influence who we talk to,” he said. “I’d like to add a fourth interview: Chris-Tel.”

The short-list committee – Transportation director Dave Loveland, transportation project manager Rob Phelan and utilities project manager Luis Molina, all three Meurer’s subordinates – agreed. They kept five of the six instead, discarding only the one firm with no local office.

But Edwards said once Chris-Tel was on the short list they started afresh, on the same footing as the others. He compared it to getting a ‘B’ on a midterm and then acing the final. He noted town officials at the selection committee meeting said they’d been ‘blown away’ by Chris-Tel’s presentation.

“The fact that Chris-Tel blew them away is not favoritism,” he said. “Wright is essentially saying that from the inception everybody was on the take.”

This is not the first time Wheeler and Chris-Tel have found themselves in the teeth of a county contract controversy. In 2008 his romantic relationship with then-Commissioner Tammy Hall had Commissioners Frank Mann and Brian Bigelow questioning the county process. Both men specifically criticized it for creating selection and short-list committees of county bosses and underlings.

The process, they said, is rife with opportunities for favoritism and undue influence. That is precisely what Wright alleges.

Back then the focus was the contract to build the new Red Sox stadium. Chris-Tel was identified by main contractor Manhattan-Kraft Construction as a sub, and Hall obtained a staff ethics opinion that she must cast her vote. Kraft got the contract with Chris-Tel as a sub. Chris-Tel has since hired away two Kraft employees, cited by Meurer as a reason to favor Chris-Tel.

Hall is gone. She resigned from office after she was caught stealing more than $30,000 from her 2010 campaign account. Bigelow is gone too, resigning to run unsuccessfully for another office in 2012 before cocaine charges in 2012 and 2013 derailed his public career.

Mann is still in office.

Cotney said he was not surprised by the protest committee decision, nor was he surprised in January when county commissioners upheld its decision.

Powell said the company considered taking the county to court, but the expense would have been great and the return likely little.

“It was just going to get more and more costly,” he said. “In the end even if you win you don’t get anything, because they can just start over.”

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