Decorum was the word of the evening at Monday night’s (Nov. 16) Board of Selectmen‘s meeting as the BoS members considered whether or not to approve seven additional trade contractor contracts on the Miller-Driscoll renovation project. Following the last two contentious meetings where the issue was debated with much rancor from board members and citizens alike, this meeting was much different, as everyone seemed calmer and controlled, even when they didn’t see eye to eye.
After public comment, including many questions from citizens, and several instances of answers from the team of representatives from Turner Construction, the BoS members voted to approve the contracts and delegate the responsibility of signing them to first selectman Bill Brennan. “We’ve done an attractive project and it’s very reasonable,” Brennan said, noting that the town is saving money⎯to the tune of $5.2 million off the original budget⎯due to aggressive bids received from contractors during the bidding process.
Somewhat unusually, the proposal passed with four selectmen voting to approve⎯and one abstention. In a surprise move, selectman Ken Dartley resigned, just a few months after being appointed to fill the term of departing BoS member James Saxe.
That still couldn’t overshadow the feeling of coordination and relief that all the other BoS members were voting the same way. Michael Kaelin, who in some respects was responsible for the more detailed public review of the contracts, said he was pleased with the resolution, which allowed more public exposure of the documents in question as well as of the process to approve them.
“How it all played out–it worked really well. It may not have been everything somebody wants, but it was something everybody wants. It was vital to the legitimacy of this project to get the approval of the new board of selectman. I don’t think there’s doubt the new members do approve signing the contracts,” he said.
Explaining why he was in favor of now signing the seven contracts before the board–and thanking the other BoS members “for compromising,”–Kaelin said it was “the right thing to do.” He gave an explanation of sorts about what motivated him to push for the BoS to take its time authorizing the contracts and to have more public discussion as part of the process.
“I do not know what you people on the building committee know. I know how much time you spend doing it, that’s why I have confidence in the work you do. But I have to make a decision on behalf of the people I represent, and I have to have this information presented to me in a public meeting so everyone understands why we’re doing what we’re doing,” he said, adding that while it may have been reviewed in public many times prior, it was “human nature not to pay attention” until it came time to make a decision, and that’s why many members of the public might have needed the information to be reviewed again now.
Indeed the question of whether or not the town would keep moving forward and sign the contracts was bolstered by the support of Lynne Vanderslice, first selectman-elect, who read a statement urging the current BoS to approve the contracts:
“Last meeting you moved this project forward; to reverse course now would likely add more cost. As I’m focused on cost, I’m not willing to put the $5.2 million in bid savings or the $6.3 million we’ve already spent [in jeopardy]. As such I recommend you approve the contracts.”
She also endorsed Turner Construction in that statement, which might help strengthen their reputation against criticism from some of their critics in town.
“I spent the last week and a half researching the questions people asked. Turner did their job as our construction manager agent. The BoS is not qualified to do the work that Turner does for us. That is why you hired Turner, they have the experience and qualifications. Also [their fee was] $1 million less than another bidder on this project. I have full confidence in Turner Construction,” Vanderslice said.
She cautioned against diluting the evening’s conversation with talk about anything other than the bid contracts up for consideration, offering that other topics would most definitely be considered once she took the first selectman’s chair. But something she noted as being crucial to realize: The contracts as presented represented $5.2 million less than was originally estimated.
“What is factual and what I think is extremely important is that the bidding process resulted in over $5.2 million cost reduction. If you scratched your head because the costs were too high, the $5.2 million came out in the bidding process and in the previous soft cost. That is a 12-percent reduction in the cost, that is a significant amount, and we still have $3.4 million in the contingency. As first selectman elect, I’m committed to bringing the project in at the lowest possible cost, without sacrificing safety or quality of the building,” she said.
Support from Other Officials
During public comment, several members of town boards and committees spoke in support of the project and the process.
Chris Finkelstein represented the Board of Education with a statement, as three other members of the BoE sat in the spectator seats in support. “We’re pleased to express continued strong support of the project. The board gave its unanimous vote to the project, but it’s important to note we didn’t give it away easily, the committee had to earn our vote. It was a painstaking process, at the end our board was confident the design plans met the need of our pre-K learners, no more, no less, and we remain firm in that conviction. The M-D project was approved 14 months ago in a legally-binding vote, in which a majority gave a green light for the project to proceed, and as we have seen, project costs are running well under budget, which is not uncommon when you have a team of professionals managing a building project. People are excited about the renovation and for Wilton to have a jewel of an elementary school of which we can all be proud. The vote that took place in Sept 2014 was legally binding and the board of selectmen is obligated to carry out the voters’ wishes by moving the project forward. We urge you to approve the contracts. It’s time to focus our energy on providing our youngest learners with an optimal learning environment.”
That was echoed by John Kalamarides, a member of the Board of Finance, who said he was speaking on behalf of the BoF chair, Warren Serenbetz, albeit with a much briefer statement: “On July 29, 2014 at a special meeting of the Board of Finance, the board voted unanimously to support the MD project. There have been no subsequent votes to alter that unanimous support.”
Glen Hemmerle, a member of the Board of Education who also sits on the Miller-Driscoll Building Committee, came the closest to expressing frustration with the added scrutiny and extended time for reviewing the contracts.
“We went through an exhaustive process. We have a proven process. Talk about the process, we’ve met since May of 2013. Every meeting we have held, has been noticed, our meetings have all been open to the public. You talk about transparency, anyone could have come and listened to the discussions, the presentations, the questions raised and answered, raised and answered. We have taken leave of our senses with this, and we are making what’s going to happen going forward beyond difficult for the town of Wilton and I really don’t understand.”
Before debate started, first selectman Brennan wanted to review some things that had come up at the last meeting on Nov. 5, saying that he had gotten some additional information and wanted to “get some mis-impressions corrected.”
He asked Ty Tregellas, the construction manager with Turner Construction, to address the seeming error pointed out by Liz Hanson on the project schedule. At the prior meeting, she pointed out that the documents did not show that work even scheduled to begin over the Thanksgiving break, which appeared to contradict statements the building official had made.
Tregellas explained that, “Both the phasing plan and the project schedule are part of the bid documents issued to the bidders. It is not intended that either one of them be 100% [or] have all the information that’s required for the bidders. It is clearly defined in the phasing plans that there is to be some abatement work over the thanksgiving holiday, that is our intent.”
One other issue that came up at the Nov. 5 meeting was allegations of mold at Middlebrook School following the construction of a new wing. It was brought up in reference to a 2003 OSHA report. Brennan said that officials contacted the former chair and vice-chair of the Middlebrook building committee, both of whom reported that any mold problem occurred five years after the completion of the Middlebrook addition project, Both said it was neither the HVAC system chosen by the building committee, nor the installation of the HVAC system that caused the mold problem. Rather, the mold problem was caused by lack of or improper maintenance by the custodial staff. Mary mentioned dampers in the wrong position and Malcolm mentioned drip pans not being emptied as being possible contributors to the mold issue.
Miller-Driscoll building committee chair Bruce Hampson told the BoS members that the town was on track to have the budget come in at a lower cost that originally estimated.”Based on the qualified low bids, the project came in $5.2 million below budget. With the anticipated reimbursement of $6.8 million, the low range of what we believe the reimbursement to be, the project should cost the citizens of Wilton $38 million.”
Hampson also spoke of his confidence in the project manager from Turner Construction. “The most important man for the project to proceed on time and on budget, is Mike Douyard, who also project manager on the WHS project. Under Mike’s leadership, that job was completed on time, in 10 weeks for $17 million. The project was completed and closed out within a week of completion, which is almost unheard of. We are incredibly fortunate to have Mike Douyard managing our day-to-day operation.”
Tregellas reviewed the remaining seven critical contracts recommended for approval, explaining that approvals were necessary so that work could begin over the Thanksgiving and holiday breaks. Those trades for which contracts were approved included steel; roofing and metal; masonry; glass and glazing; drywall; teledata and AV; and site work.
The Turner representatives also explained how the contractors were vetted to make sure they are the most qualified, saying that not only did they follow state guidelines and laws but that additional reviews implemented on their own were used to select the winning bidders, who were required to be the lowest qualified bidders.
Andy Swayze, procurement manager for Turner explained, “The fact that there is state reimbursement kind of forces us into meeting their requirements into what defines a low responsible bidder. According to CT Statute, if you request reimbursement from the state of CT all contracts greater than $10,000 have to be awarded to the lowest qualified bidder. For any contract above $500,000 the contractor has to be DAS pre-qualified.” Swayze called it a “strict pre qualification process,” in which they look at key company personnel, safety record, OSHA history, past performance, litigation history, financial strength, bonding capacity, past disqualifications (state agencies), and references.
Moreover, Turner requires additional things of bidders to qualify; Swayze explained that each low bidder is brought in to go through a scope review, “to walk down every line item, to confirm the bidder understands what is required. All the key players are in the room and the subcontractor understands exactly what is required of them.”
The Turner officials also discussed site safety, calling “part of our contract requirement, we have presence, he or his staff will be present each time trade contractors. safety is clearly one of our highest priorities, children staff and visitors. It’s our role to administer those trade contractors to make sure they’re living up to the requirements that are clearly outlined. Each contractor also has to submit a safety plan, that gets reviewed by Turner. to make sure it complies with the overall safety plan.
[Note: Not all public comments have been included here, only ones the editor believed significant]
There were some members of the public who spoke to reiterate that they have felt, up until now, the Miller Driscoll building committee hasn’t been forthcoming or cooperative with providing information. Marianne Gustafson criticized the committee for not having the correct names or spellings for contract bid winners for her and others to be able to do appropriate research. While she said she felt “very good” following the presentation from Turner officials earlier, she still felt the board was “rushing to contract.”
Similarly Kim Becker said she didn’t “feel warm and cozy” with the town officials, and said, “if we had heard this [detailed information about contract bidders] two to three months ago, if we had this upfront, many of our fears would have [allayed].
Mike Kaelin replied that the committee and Turner “just got the bids two weeks ago, we asked for them and they’ve given it to us.” He and others added that some of the specific questions she had about bid winners had been asked and answered at a previous meeting.
Tom Curtin specifically thanked Vanderslice, saying he felt, “better about the process going forward,” but he didn’t feel good until now. “We didn’t have the participation and we didn’t have the transparency. Obvious people want it to go forward with transparency, with participation, with people sharing information, without vilifying people who open their mouths to say I’m concerned. In other words, don’t tell us to shut up.”
Simon Reiff, saying he was speaking as a parent of a child at Miller-Driscoll, pushed to find an answer for when building officials would conduct a baseline indoor air quality test, questioning whether that would be done before Thanksgiving. Douyard tried to explain that all scheduled asbestos abatement at the moment is exterior, but Reiff continued to push the matter.
That’s when Michael Kaelin said, “Asbestos tends to be a loaded, if not frightening, term. Really we’re talking about a very small section of the building, outside.”
At which point, Reiff reminded the board that he was the attorney for Sensible Wilton, to address the issue about who was responsible for site safety–Turner Construction or the town.
“There have been concerns raised tonight about safety, due diligence, and lack of liability under this Turner contract. Sensible Wilton has always been interested in resolving the Miller Driscoll issue without litigating. We think that because the new board is going to have responsibility for this project, notwithstanding Lynne your comments that you recommend going forward, we think, for full transparency, that this should be adjourned until the board takes their seats, what Mike Kaelin advocated. Will lend legitimacy, allow broader support, allow discussions to take place. I will hope and ask the board to consider adjourning.”
Vanderslice reminded him that she had asked for issues related to questioning Turner and liability to be held for discussion until the first meeting under her term as first selectman.
John Mackin said he was impressed with Turner’s answers that evening, and that his prime concern was safety for his son, a student at Miller Driscoll. “I have no reason to believe you would put his safety in jeopardy. For me it’s a statement of please think of us when you’re making decisions. I want to make sure my son is in a healthy environment. If we’re getting hung up on semantics and we’re going to lose those cost savings, I don’t think that’s very sensible.”
Air Quality and Mold Concerns
Saying she had been watching the meeting at home on TV, Marisa Lowthert, a resident who has been highly critical of the town and the school’s record on indoor air quality, said she got in her car and drove to the meeting when she heard officials say they wanted to “correct misimpressions.” She said she wanted to correct facts asserted last night that she believed were wrong.
She pointed to a report from 2012 that said the mold problem was more significant than town officials were admitting to. She also questioned Tregellas’ assertion at the Nov. 5 meeting that he didn’t know anything about mold at Miller-Driscoll, as she had an email dressed to him with a report all about mold at that school. “I’m surprised to hear that… I’m concerned about representations and misrepresentations about this project.”
Reiterating her concerns about PCBs at Miller Driscoll as well, she said she discovered through a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request that the town had budgeted budgeted over $52,000 in legal work regarding PCBs, had hired TRC to do testing and write reports, then paid for attorneys to rewrite those reports. She questioned, Why did you spend $52,000 having attorneys edit the reports instead of doing air testing to give parents the assurance that the air is ok?”
Lowthert also alleged that the subject of FOIAs had become “a dirty word” in Wilton. “I don’t see why information is being kept. The town has a responsibility.”
She also urged the BoS to delay voting on the contracts, saying more due diligence needs to be done about the contractors who submitting winning bids.
When Bruce Hampson responded that there was only mold in one room, Lowthert pointed to a report and said Hampson was relying on his recollection while she was relying on reports.
“People keep saying there’s a lot of misinformation, but misinformation is coming from the town. I think parents deserve to know the truth about what kind of conditions their children are being exposed to. If mold is in the building, and children have mold allergies, parents deserve to know the truth. Why can’t parents know the full extent of what their children are going to be exposed to? These things need to be vetted and public, and when these things are misrepresented, that gives people the discomfort that we don’t know what’s going on. So I ask for more factual information be put forward based on the reports.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Michael Kaelin addressed Lowthert directly about her hazardous material questions when he said, “I assure you, your opinion is valued. We’re going to follow up on it. It’s something I’m going to talk to Lynne [Vanderslice] about.”