During a Victoria Regional Airport Commission meeting several weeks ago, I raised questions regarding the repairs to airport properties in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. I was surprised to see that one company was awarded a no-bid contract to complete all repairs. The questions posed were reported by The Advocate.
The questions posed were to inform the airport commission of the details surrounding an enormous amount of public funds, both from insurance proceeds and from FEMA, that were apparently entrusted to one out-of-state company to complete repairs.
The fact that no details were provided that chronicled the vetting of the contractor, the scope of repairs contracted, documentation of work actually performed and work that remained to be completed sent up many red flags. All of the questions should have been easily answered by reviewing files that would be routinely maintained on any construction project. To this day, the answers to those questions have not been made public. Taxpayers have a right to know how their dollars are spent.
To his credit, and in an effort to ease the concerns of a growing number of citizens, our county judge, Ben Zeller, called a joint meeting of the airport commission and the commissioners’ court. That meeting was held with a standing-room-only crowd.
We were told that the construction company, Virtus, was referred to the county by our insurance carrier, the Texas Association of Counties. We learned that Virtus, along with another firm, Gerloff Construction, were suggested by TAC to help with emergency repairs. Gerloff has stated that they were never contacted. There is no mention of the due diligence exercised to select Virtus. Because of the nature of the emergency, the commissioners’ court exempted themselves from the requirement to secure competitive bids for any work in excess of $50,000. This seemed like a prudent thing to do. Approval to hire Virtus is recorded by a unanimous vote of the court. Emergencies require special action, but not after the emergency has passed.
It appears that Virtus, who seems to be acting as an agent for TAC, was the only party determining the extent of the damages to the county’s property. It is more common than not that the insured is in an adversarial position with the insurer. As such, hiring an independent adjuster might have been a more reasoned approach. Without independent eyes, we can never be assured that our claims were treated fairly.
Despite receiving an email from TAC that the emergency phase of remediation was finishing up, only two weeks after the initial vote to hire Virtus, a second unanimous vote awarded an open-ended, no-bid contract for Virtus to perform substantially all the repairs. That email included a statement suggesting the return to a bid process for the remaining repairs and further made clear that the choice of contractors was the county’s responsibility. As with the emergency repairs, the court exempted themselves from the bid laws. While the county’s lawyers point out that this is technically legal, the lawyers did not say this was wise. The fundamental question is whether it is a prudent business decision to avoid a competitive bidding process for repairs that were not of an emergency nature.
The court continues to argue that this was appropriate. I believe it was a regrettable decision that I hope will never be duplicated. There is a valid reason why we have bid laws. Absent competitive bidding, the public cannot be reasonably assured that their money is being spent for the best value with the most competent professionals.
Regarding the payment of invoices, we were told to rest easy because it was the county auditor’s job to review all invoices and that nothing would be paid without this essential safeguard in place. We learned, however, that during this process, two county auditors summarily resigned and the one auditor who has commented has said, in effect, that she was bullied by a senior staff member to sign checks without proper review because this senior staffer said so. Further, we were told by the county treasurer that he had been “frozen out” of the process. It doesn’t feel that financial safeguards were in place. The public should have confidence that the county commissioners are a good steward of our money.
Regarding the scope of work, the quality of the work and the completeness of the work, we were told by Commissioner Kevin Janak that he had taken upon himself the role of project manager. He and a team of county employees are trying to reconstruct an analysis of the work performed and money paid. Repeatedly we are told that he is having to “reinvent the wheel.”
That it’s taken him eight months to reconstruct this is the best evidence that we did not have due diligence from the outset. Commissioner Janak has stated that the information will not be made available until he has completed his work. Transparency loses some of its effectiveness the longer information is withheld.
Absent any other information, it appears that the elected officials surrendered all or most of their administrative duties and authority to one staffer. That staffer operated, it would seem, without adequate supervision and direction. At least I hope that is the case; otherwise, it would seem that our elected officials condoned and fostered a behavior that created a work environment that included bullying and coercion to an extent that employees, in some cases, may have felt compelled out of fear for their jobs to do things that went against their conscience. A number of county employees both past and present have expressed that sentiment.
None of this feels right and the citizens of Victoria County deserve better. This is a mess. Hoping this issue goes away is not an effective strategy. Trying to intimidate critics of this process and treat citizens and employees disrespectfully is beneath the positions of our elected officials. By way of examples, you only need to view the meeting where, after criticizing the process, John Clegg’s invoice was singled out for scrutiny. Further you are encouraged to look at the way a valued employee was disrespected during the commissioners’ court meeting on Aug. 26. It’s embarrassing.
Until now, Commissioner Gary Burns has been the only elected official to ask for an independent examination of the facts, including involving the Texas Rangers, if deemed appropriate. While his suggestion has seemingly fallen on deaf ears, it has not been lost on the many citizens who have contacted me. If all is on the up and up, why wouldn’t the commissioners want a thorough investigation?
Once again, I ask that this entire process be brought into the open to allow our taxpayers to examine how this episode was administered. It is the right and, I would argue, the responsibility of citizens to question our elected officials. The answers to those questions, or lack of answers, will allow all interested parties to develop informed opinions regarding the quality of representation they are receiving. This is what transparency is all about. It’s to make government better.
Refugio County should be congratulated for facing a similar issue head-on. They, too, used Virtus in a similar fashion as Victoria County did through their association with TAC. Refugio has now sued TAC in an effort to receive a fair settlement for their citizens, recognizing that things were not done right.
Hurricane Harvey was a disaster of epic proportions. It will not, however, be the last disaster we will face. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this and I hope everything comes out in the open, and we can develop a system for dealing with similar issues in the future.
What we learn from this will determine how we spend public dollars after the next hurricane, and who will spend your tax dollars.