The recent joint meeting of the Victoria County Commission and the Victoria Airport Commission raised more questions than it answered.
Fortunately, one recommendation cut through the haze with laser-like focus: Form a forensic task force to examine how Victoria County handled the Hurricane Harvey rebuilding process for the Victoria Regional Airport and other county buildings.
Airport commissioner Dennis Patillo, a respected Victoria businessman, offered the recommendation during the brief time county commissioners allowed him to speak. For most of the meeting, the county commissioners dominated with defensive rhetoric about how hard they work and how nothing inappropriate or even just sloppy could have happened during the spending of $2.6 million on Harvey repairs.
Should Victoria County form a forensic task force to investigate the spending of Hurricane Harvey recovery money?
That all may be true. If so, they should welcome the opportunity for a forensic task force to re-examine the process.
At their meeting June 27, airport commissioners raised important questions about the Harvey spending. They wanted to know why one Kansas company handled both the remediation and repairs; why the work did not go through the bidding process required by law; why the invoices for completed work lacked detail; and why more than $500,000 could not be attributed to specific repairs at all. They also wanted to know why the project was overseen by the county’s former director of administrative services, Joyce Dean, and not airport manager Lenny Llerena.
The joint commission meeting answered none of these questions. Instead, it raised more, including why the county chose RMC Group – aka the Virtus Group and Commercial Restoration Company – rather than the also-recommended Gerloff Company, and why the county did not heed a second email, sent only 12 days after Harvey struck, advising officials that the emergency phase was over and that “bid laws and the local political environment should be considered.”
Instead, the county voted 12 days after receiving this Sept. 6, 2017, email to use an emergency as the reason for bypassing state law requiring all projects of $50,000 or more to go through a bidding process. County commissioner Gary Burns said at the joint meeting that he didn’t realize he was voting to suspend the bidding process indefinitely on the projects and accepted his share of the responsibility for not pressing the issue more in the days and months that followed.
Perhaps the county just got sloppy during the hectic days that followed Harvey. And perhaps the Virtus Group truly was the best one to do all the work, even though only 70% of it is completed after almost two years and questions remain about exactly what has been done, who did the work and what remains to be completed.
A forensic task force is the right way to start to answer those questions. County commissioners must not brush aside concerns expressed by airport vice chairman Jim Hartman, another highly respected Victoria businessman, who said the county’s check for $500,000 to the Virtus Group raised a “red flag” for him because it wasn’t for specific repairs based on an itemized invoice.
In forming the task force, county commissioners should follow the recommendations of Hartman, Patillo and airport chairman Trey Ruschhaupt, yet another respected businessman, who was traveling and unable to attend the hastily called joint meeting. The task force needs to be free to follow the audit where it leads and be given access to all information it seeks.
During the joint meeting, Patillo served up the issue even better than one of the delicious dinners at his Pumphouse Riverside Restaurant and Bar. Patillo also is a past president of the Texas Association of Realtors who has worked on major projects in Victoria and Houston.
“This isn’t going to be the last time that Victoria County faces an emergency,” he said, “and I do hope that we have the ability, through public focus groups or through another task force, to sit down and forensically look at everything, because it’s not necessarily what happens that causes the damage in public perception; what causes the damage in public perception is the thought that all things weren’t considered.”
He served up a solution to this mess on a platter for the county commissioners. They need to have the intestinal fortitude to follow up even if some of the answers give them stomach pains.