Originally published in 2014. Since repeated.
by Charlie Whitehead
Bid Protest, Favoritism Charges Cloud Lee/Beach Project
So how does a firm angling to run a $50 million county project go from rated dead last among those seeking the work to walking away with the contract?
That’s what officials with Wright Construction want to know.
A cloud hangs over a major project at Fort Myers Beach as Wright claims Lee County officials steered a construction management contract worth millions to a favorite.
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 and utility 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. When Beach voters approved a referendum to pay to fix the leaky run-down water system the town bought from Florida Cities Water Company in 2001 early estimates were it could cost as much as $18 million to fix, well above the $7.5 million included in the county project.
Both county and town officials described the project as a high-profile lightning rod sure to create controversy. Estero Boulevard routinely becomes a 6-mile parking lot during the busy winter and spring season, a situation sure to be made worse by construction.
Even the county’s own project newsletters admit the project is not designed to ease seasonal vehicular traffic congestion, describing it instead as a means to allow travelers to shift to bicycles, walking and trolleys.
In a bid protest hearing on October 28 attorney Trent Cotney argued the pending award of a construction management contract for the widening of Estero Boulevard to Chris-Tel Construction was a predetermined conclusion.
Cotney claims Assistant County Manager Doug Meurer influenced the 3-person county short-list and selection committee to select the firm that the committee initially ranked last among the six seeking the work.
Meurer did not attend the hearing and will not comment on the pending bid protest. 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. Meuer 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, tossed from office when 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.
Wright has made public records requests for internal emails and other communications between county officials as well as county commissioner election finance reports. Chris-Tel president Howard Wheeler is active in local politics and wrote checks to the campaigns of all five current county commissioners.
Wright’s records request had not been filled when the protest hearing took place. Cotney said people are reviewing the extensive information received since.
Unsurprised by the protest committee decision, Cotney said the case will go before county commissioners. If they go along with the recommendation the next option is court.
“It was pretty clear they had an agenda,” he said of the selection system. “They missed the mark on fairness from the very beginning.”
The town of Fort Myers Beach fired Town Manager Terry Stewart on Jan. 15, sending him packing with a benefit package worth just under $120,000.
Moving into the office at town hall will be Don Stilwell, the man who for 16 years headed Lee County government.
Stewart offered his resignation to Mayor Alan Mandel after a contentious Jan. 10 meeting that saw Stewart yell at a Beach resident who has made allegations over the town granting permits for elevated pools and angrily refuse when Councilman Dan Andre later wanted him to apologize.
Stewart said he’d become a lightning rod before he left his last job in Cape Coral, and Cape staffers had been negatively affected. With a council election looming and the elevated pools issue hot he said he didn’t want the same thing happening again.
With Councilman Bob Raymond out of town Mandel called an emergency meeting Jan. 15, where he asked for a motion to terminate Stewart’s contract cause without according to Section 6.02 of the town charter. The council quickly voted 4-0 to approve, leaving most of the 50 or-so in attendance scratching their heads.
Section 6.02 of the charter outlines procedure for termination without cause, granting the departing manager six months severance. Had Stewart resigned or had the council terminated with cause he would have walked away without severance.
The walk-away package started with six months salary or $60,000. State law caps severance at 20 weeks, but the agreement gave Stewart the equivalent of six weeks more. Stewart’s owed more than $52,000 for vacation and unused sick time, and the town will write a $6,300 check to the state for Stewart’s pension.
Attorney David Potter said the extra six weeks pay was for a broader claims release Stewart agreed to.
Raymond was back for the Jan. 21 council meeting, and he was not happy. He said he didn’t want to lose Stewart, but he would have never voted to give Stewart a severance package and Stewart knew it. He said the emergency meeting happened too quickly.
“By doing it real quick you got rid of the one negative vote,” Raymond said. “You all knew I would vote against it.”
Raymond was upset Stewart will receive severance, and pointed out the check Beach taxpayers will write is well above the six months salary that was cited.
“That’s taxpayer money thrown to the wind,” he said. “You don’t run away from your problems and basically Terry ran away from his responsibility.”
Mandel insisted the meeting was not rushed to take place while Raymond was away. Councilman Joe Kosinski said he hopes Raymond wasn’t implying the other council members ‘railroaded’ it through.
But Raymond said if Stewart wanted to leave he should have walked away without severance.
“You don’t pay someone to leave and give them money just because they want it,” he said. “It’s not our money to throw away, and we just threw it out the window.”
Raymond voted against the separation agreement, losing 4-1.
Stilwell was on a list of four candidates for the interim job, which council members said they expect to last six months or less. A candidate for Lee County commission in District 4, Stilwell told council members he’d withdraw.
The other candidates were former Sanibel and Bonita Springs manager Gary Price, former Beach manager Jack Green and current Beach fiscal manager Evelyn Wicks.
The deciding vote was 3 for Stilwell and 2 for Price. The council took a second vote, up or down on Stilwell, to make it unanimous.
Stilwell does come with baggage. He was fired in 2010 after 16 years at the county when an FBI probe turned up lurid images on his county-owned computer. Council members said Stilwell got high praise from county officials, however, and Mandel read from a glowing endorsement Stilwell got from the Fort Myers NewsPress when he ran unsuccessfully for county commission in 2012.
Council said Stilwell was the right man to keep projects like Estero Boulevard improvements and a major potable water project on track.
Stilwell started work Monday Jan. 27. He’ll get the same $10,000 a month Stewart was getting. He said it’s a month-by-month open-ended contract.
“I think it’s wise, because it doesn’t bind another council,” Stilwell said.
Two council members, Raymond and Jo List, are termed out in March.
“I worked with the Beach for 16 years as county manager,” said Stilwell, who lives in Fort Myers. “It’s a special place. It’s where I take people when they come to town.”
Stilwell said he believes he’ll be a good fit, and he would be interested in keeping the job full-time.
“Absolutely,” he said.