Water meter fix shelved for re-do; Council rejects Parish President’s recommendation

Published 12:17 am Saturday, June 1, 2019

LAPLACE — Resolution to a water meter debacle that has created a flood of complaints in St. John the Baptist Parish has been delayed again, raising the possibility the issue will remain unresolved or at least just in its early stages of implementation by the time voters go to the polls in October for a pivotal election.

Council members this past Tuesday rejected the recommendation of President Natalie Robottom to award a contract to Aqua Metric Sales Company for the St. John Meter Reading and Billing System project, which, when finished, promises to correct problems that have been plaguing the utilities department and residents alike with improper billing and other issues for several years.

Council members eschewed Robottom’s suggestion, instead following the advice of District Attorney Bridget A. Dinvaut’s office, which “strongly recommended” starting the bid process over, that even with no additional delays could take up to four months to get started and potentially buttress up against the fall election.

The dispute appears to be focused on the interpretation of two legal questions. The first is whether the administration followed Louisiana Public Bid Law when it originally bid the project.

According to the D.A.’s office, the parish violated the bid law by not mentioning that since the contract is to be financed in whole or part by federal and state grants, funds will not be “readily available” at the time the bids are received.

The second issue is whether the apparent low bid of Greenup Industries was legally responsible.

In early April, bids were opened for the massive project, with Greenup, a firm based in Gonzales, submitting a bid of $5.5 million, some $200,000 lower than the $5.7 million bid of Aqua Metrics, which is headquartered in Selma, Texas. However, Robottom maintained Greenup’s bid was deemed nonresponsive by the state Attorney General’s office, which meant the contract would go to the second low bidder.

For the past five weeks, awarding of the contract has been repeatedly tabled, awaiting a legal opinion from the D.A.’s office regarding Greenup’s bid. But during that time, the D.A.’s office apparently surfaced what it is calling a public bid violation.

Assistant District Attorney Keith Green said the original bid was illegal because it omitted the “funds readily available clause.” Green explained that because disbursement of funds must first be approved by the agencies administering the grant, the money is not readily available.

However, Robottom and Chief Financial Officer Rob Figuero Jr. maintained that earlier this year a loan had been taken out for the project through the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and the funds were “readily available,” sitting in the parish’s checkbook.

Several Council members disagreed. Green said “due to the violation, (the DA’s office) strongly recommends a motion of the Parish Council to remediate this violation by starting the public bid process over, from the beginning, to fully comply with mandates and requirements of the Louisiana Public Bid Law. Any contract entered into would be null and void. It would effectively disqualify the entire bid process.”

Robottom countered that every payment on contracts is handled in the same manner, whether it’s engineer consultant Joseph Savoie or other consulting or stage agencies first approving invoices before payments are rendered.

Fueling the controversy was the fact Robottom and Council members were notified of Green’s opinion shortly before the finance committee meeting was called to order. Robottom called it “insulting” and suggested perhaps the parish should contract with an outside firm for contract review and approval if the D.A.’s office was so overworked that it takes weeks “to review a single sheet of paper.”

Green said he would be following up with a more detailed opinion the following day but that his recommendation would not change.

“How do we proceed?” a clearly flustered Councilwoman Jaclyn Hotard-Gaudet asked Green, who repeated restarting the bid process is “what we are recommending tonight to ensure full compliance with the bid law.”

A lengthy discussion followed about “drawdowns” and the definition of “readily available” but throughout that process there was no budging from either the administration or the D.A.’s office.

Figuero also reminded Council members the DEQ approved the parish’s bid and advertising process.

Regarding the Greenup bid, Robottom said the state A.G.’s office determined that bid non-responsive. Council members have previously argued Greenup failed to fill in only one line on the original bid and should not have been disqualified but documents obtained by L’OBSERVATEUR revealed three lines were left blank and five were added that were not on the original bid form. Robottom said each one of those was a violation of bid law.

“To add was a problem, to leave off was a problem,” she said.

“As long as we get water meters, I don’t care,” Councilman Larry Snyder said at one point.

Hotard-Gaudet acknowledged the information provided by the D.A.’s office was a “lot to digest” but added if the “funds are readily available; we will be able to pay (vendors).”

She also renewed her recommendation from earlier this year that instead of going out for bid, the parish should issue a Request for Proposals, which would streamline the process and give the parish greater flexibility. She added if Green’s recommendation was approved as worded, the Council would be locked into going out for public bid a second time, thus squashing the RFP option.

Hotard-Gaudet was the lone opposition in an 8-1 vote to accept Green’s recommendation, thus rebooting the process and leaving unanswered the original question of the validity of Greenup’s bid.

— By Richard Meek