Water meters unlikely to be installed before fall elections, Robottom says: Legal complexities further hinder bidding process

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 27, 2019

LAPLACE — A long-troubled water meter project has taken a small step forward, but a web of legal complexities that must be unwoven will likely mean delays that could last well past the upcoming elections and potentially into 2020.

The St. John Parish Council this past Tuesday night voted to approve a payment of $16,675 to Digital Engineering, which has already completed preparation of the original bid specifications.

The vote culminated a heated, 40-minute debate that covered the spectrum of the project, which had been delayed by several legal opinions of the District Attorney’s office as well as in-house bickering involving council members and the administration.

The Digital debate, which came near the end of a much broader discussion regarding the water meter reading and billing system project, focused on whether Digital was owed the money. The engineering firm crafted the original bid specs omitting what has become the lighting-rod phrase “funds not readily available.”

The DA’s office and some council members believe that phrase should have been included in the original bid sheet. However, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, a financial advisor, and at least four other parties signed off on those specs. That phrase, or its omission, was at the heart of a separate legal tussle that has also created setbacks.

A recent vote by council members to start the entire bid process over resulted in Digital having to redo work it has already completed, which is the compensation the company was seeking.

“Nobody works for nothing,” President Natalie Robottom told council members. “(Digital) will be working additional hours for something you want them to redo.”

Several council members disagreed, including Lennix Madere, who maintained that Digital was in error when crafting the original specs, despite the opinions of two staff agencies, including the state Attorney General.

“They are a big company, they can afford (the $16,675). They should eat it,” Madere said.

“Digital did not do anything wrong,” Robottom countered. “At least six people, including your financial bond attorney and financial consultant and DEQ (approved those specs).”

A legal opinion offered by the DA’s office sidestepped the question of whether Digital was in error when writing the original specs but contends that Digital is “obligated to provide all basic services to complete the project.” Since the project will be rebid, the DA’s office is contending Digital’s work is “not complete.”

Growing out of that controversy was a lawsuit filed against the Parish by Aqua Metric Sales Company, which has been determined by Digital to be the lowest “responsive bidder.” Judge Kirk Vaughn dismissed the case on July 19.

Testimony in the case took an unusual twist when President Natalie Robottom appeared to testify on Aqua Metric’s behalf, which Assistant District Attorney Keith Green called “suspicious,” although the parish president did say she was on the stand representing the Parish.

At one point, Madere pointedly told the Digital representative, “You sued, and it was thrown out.”  Other council members quickly stepped in to correct Madere, noting that Digital was not a party to any lawsuit.

Council members Larry Snyder and Jaclyn Hotard-Gaudet initially agreed that Digital should not be awarded the additional funds, but in the end, Snyder and Hotard-Gaudet led a 5-2 vote approving the payment.

Although the vote might appear to clear the way for the project to gain traction, Robottom, in an email to L’OBSERVATEUR on July 24, explained that several hurdles remain to be cleared. She said the amendment that was approved to pay Digital has not been deemed legally sufficient by the DA, so it cannot be executed.

She said based on the recommendations of the DA’s office, language in the new bid will include the phrase “funds are not readily available,” which she said is false.

She added that a public entity may reject a bid for “just cause” for public work and that Digital did not find just cause to reject Aqua Metric’s bid.

Robottom noted it will take “several months” to rebid project with the required approval from LDEQ, and the meters will “unlikely be installed” before the fall election, when a new president will be elected. Potentially, no new meters will be installed until after a new administration takes office in January.

by Richard Meek, contributing writer