St. John leaders clash over contract; $1M wastewater rehab held up over $68K EPA grant

Published 12:13 am Saturday, July 15, 2017

EDGARD — Procedural confusion and a burgeoning crevasse further divorcing the St. John the Parish Council members and the administration have dry docked plans for the Wastewater Treatment Plant Tank rehab project for at least another two weeks.

In the latest chapter of a continuing saga that has sparked a plethora of political showboating during the past two months, the decision as to whether to award an engineering contract for the wastewater project was once again shelved during the Council meeting Tuesday night.

An agenda item on the finance committee agenda called for the contract, which is worth $126,686 for the design, project management and inspection services of the project, to be awarded to Principal Engineering, based out of Mandeville, and who lists as its president former St. John Parish director of Public Works and Utilities Henry DiFranco.

The parish is in line to be awarded an EPA grant of $68,745 to help fund the engineering contract. Overall, the project is estimated to come in at $1 million.

Although not stated in the motion, Parish President Natalie Robottom said the contract would be awarded with the “full understanding” that Principal Engineering “will be partnering” with C&S Consultants, based out of New Orleans, through an “outside agreement.” That discussion sparked additional debate with the Administration, Council members and D.A.’s office.

Councilman Kurt Becnel noted how Jeff Green, an attorney with the D.A.’s office, had emailed Council members Tuesday reminding them they had previously awarded the contract to C&S. In the email Green went on to say the “process by which C&S was selected did not contemplate or approve a joint venture for the services identified in the original Request for Qualifications that was approved by the EPA and implemented by the administration and/or South Central Planning.”

Green went on to say the D.A.’s office “strongly cautions the council” on approving the motion.

Robottom countered there would be no funding source if C&S was awarded the contract, and that if signed, it would be invalid. Although legal counsel disputed that fact, the parish president, in an email to L’OBSERVATEUR following the meeting, referenced a state Attorney General’s opinion specifically saying a contract “signed by a parish president when no funds had been budgeted or appropriated for such a contract is not valid.”

The issue, for all of its political tentacles, boils down to whether C&S will be awarded the contract, as the Council vehemently supports, or will it be awarded to Principal, as per Robottom’s desire. The parish president recommended the contr  act be awarded to Principal Engineering based on her staff’s point system when ranking bidders, but Council members voted to award the contract to C&S, which, according to records, was ranked third.

A continuous tussle ensued during the next several meetings, with Robottom repeatedly claiming the EPA would not award the grant to St. John because the Council was awarding the lower rated firm the contract. On more than one occasion Council Chairman Larry Snyder indicated he might be in favor of the parish coming up with the amount of the grant if C&S is ultimately awarded the contract.

Snyder did not return an email from L’OBSERVATEUR following the meeting seeking comment regarding that possibility.

At one point, Councilwoman Jaclyn Hotard asked if C&S could withdraw its proposal and then the Council could potentially vote on a new proposal that would include the joint partnership. Green said C&S would have to send its rescind notice in writing and the vote would come back before the Council.

“We cannot speak for C&S,” Snyder said. “We need to do it the right way and let’s make sure we follow all of the rules.”

When the issue will be presented to the council again is uncertain.

— By Richard Meek