Anniston appears to have followed Alabama law in bidding work on its temporary City Hall, despite allegations made by Councilman Ben Little.
Little has claimed in council meetings since June that the city failed to advertise a second round of bidding for a public works project, the renovation of a wing of the Consolidated Publishing building to create office space and council chambers. The city leased the property from the publishing company in April with the intent of overhauling it into a temporary City Hall location. The current City Hall on Gurnee Avenue will be demolished to make way for a new federal courthouse, as part of a deal with the U.S. General Services Administration.
Such a violation would qualify as a Class C felony, according to Alabama public works law, which would include a prison sentence up to 10 years and fines up to $15,000. Little faces Class B felony charges in his own criminal case over alleged violations of state ethics laws, which carry steeper penalties.
“That’s why Johnson got his butt out of here,” Little said Thursday, referring to former City Manager Jay Johnson, who resigned in June after accusing Little and Councilman David Reddick of creating a hostile work environment. Little has frequently attempted to link the renovation bid to Johnson’s exit.
But Little’s assertion appears to be founded on no particular factual information, beyond his confidence that corruption is afoot in the city.
Here are the facts of the bid process, according to a timeline emailed to The Star on Thursday by Little, which he received July 15 from interim City Manager Steven Folks, with information compiled by architect Bill Whittaker:
— Bid ads ran in The Anniston Star on April 28, May 5 and May 12, the legally required three weeks before the bid deadline. A mandatory pre-bid meeting, attended by eight general contractors, was held May 13. Only one bid was received by the May 20 deadline, submitted by Kilgore Construction for $428,696. The City Council voted to reject that bid, which was more than $128,000 over the $300,000 budget.
— Whittaker's office solicited more bids at Johnson’s request. The city again received one bid by the June 3 deadline in its second round of bidding, this time from McWhorter and Company, with an agreement that the company would work with the city to bring down the project’s cost.
— The council expected a cost of $384,000 for the first phase of the project when it voted to accept McWhorter’s bid. Reddick and Little argued that the total cost of the two phases would be greater than the bid offered by Kilgore Construction; by June 18 the cost of the first phase had dropped to $311,496 after more cost-saving measures were taken, according to documents included in the timeline.
Little said he believed the city was required to advertise the second round of bidding. Alabama law, however, doesn’t require more advertisements when a city receives only a single bidder. In fact, section 39-2-6b of Alabama law states “the awarding authority may advertise for and seek other competitive bids” when only a single bidder responds, before going on to say “the awarding authority may negotiate for the work through the receipt of informal bids not subject to the requirements of this section.”
Bruce Downey, city attorney, said as much Friday.
“They utilized the authority provided by Alabama law,” Downey said. “Given the time constraint, going the informal bid route is the only option.”
Downey said the time frame for the work, with the need for city offices to be built by Aug. 15 and the council chamber ready by Sept. 30, might have made the project unattractive to contractors.
With only one bid, which broke the expected $300,000 budget by $128,000, the city was able to operate more directly in finding a contractor willing to whittle down costs. Downey noted that the language of the law specifically allows negotiation of the work’s cost.
“What are you going to negotiate on a construction project? Two things, essentially: the scope of the work and the price of the work,” he said.
When Little was asked to cite the section of the law he believed had been violated, Little emailed a PDF copy of the Alabama Municipal Journal from 2008 — a magazine produced by the Alabama League of Municipalities — citing a brief paragraph which explains the rules for cities when a single bidder responds to a work request. According to that paragraph, the municipality can reject the bid and “negotiate the purchase or contract, provided the negotiated price is lower than the bid price.”
Little offered no further explanation about how that contradicts state law in his email. He reiterated that he believed the city should have advertised again, because in his opinion, the altered scope of the work constituted a brand-new project.
“The problem is it not the same bid that was bid on and there was colluding going on,” Little wrote.