Same consultants advise Vero, Shores on water
Despite official denials, not only the same consulting firm, GAI Consultants, but the same four professionals are advising the Town of Indian River Shores and the City of Vero Beach as they consider whether to enter into new water and sewer franchise agreements, according to invoices obtained by Vero Beach 32963.
In our Oct. 14 issue, we ran an article with the headline “Does conflict of interest stink?” which suggested that the fact that GAI Consultants was working for the City of Vero Beach and the Town of Indian River Shores – both potential parties to a new 30-year franchise agreement -- seemed to pose a conflict of interest.
Former Shores Mayor Tom Cadden, who was appointed by the Town to head up efforts to explore options for the Town’s utility service, had a problem with our coverage of the issue.
“There is no conflict because GAI is working on different issues for the city than they are for us,” Cadden had told us after the Sept. 23 Shores Council meeting. “And GAI is a big outfit, they have different people working on the different projects.”
“I think we better talk about your article about conflict of interest,” Cadden said in a subsequent voicemail message. “You have a mistake in there that needs to be corrected in the newspaper. You’ve got to correct the article. It’s wrong.”
But public records obtained by Vero Beach 32963 clearly show that our story was right on target.
The Principal Engineer on both cities’ projects is Gerald Hartman, who bills at a rate of $220 per hour and charged the City of Vero Beach $440 to analyze the Town of Indian River Shores water-sewer proposal, which he and his team drafted and sent to the city just days earlier.
Professional Engineer Manjiang Chen, Senior Designer Steven Holmes and Consultant Daniel Friedman also invoiced both the Town and Vero for time spent working on their projects.
At the last Indian River Shores Town Council meeting, Councilmen Gerard Weick and Mike Ochsner expressed their concerns about GAI’s seeming conflict of interest working for two parties to the same negotiation.
Cadden assured the Council that there was no conflict.
Meanwhile, GAI sent a proposal over to Indian River County that was so rife with legal pitfalls that the county did not even feel comfortable responding, for fear that it could be accused of trying to interfere with the Town’s existing franchise agreement with Vero, which expires Oct. 31, 2016. Instead, County Administrator Joe Baird sent a letter requesting the Town gain a release from Vero so it could broach the franchise topic with the county.
This is not the only disconcerting fact about how these matters have been handled in the Shores.
Apparently, the officials who met with the GAI consultants to review the proposals sent to Vero and the County had no authority to make decisions for the Town.
The story published in the Oct. 14 issue of Vero Beach 32963 also stated that a “steering committee” appointed by the Indian River Shores Town Council had met three times with GAI Consultants to review 30-year proposals for water and sewer service before they were sent to the City of Vero Beach and Indian River County for consideration.
The story added that the Town Council was not apprised that the proposals were being dispatched to the utility providers.
After the story ran, Cadden called Vero Beach 32963 to say Mayor Bill Kenyon was in on all three meetings, though that information was not conveyed when questions were originally posed about the meetings.
The only Town officials we previously were told were present were members of the “steering committee.”
Our subsequent request for any documentation showing the dates, times and places of these meetings, and any documentation that Kenyon was invited to view or present at these meetings (which in our opinion wold be public record), apparently put the Town on the defensive.
Town Attorney Chester Clem explained the committee is not a “steering committee” because its sole purpose is to advise and inform the Town Council.
“I am not certain that I would characterize this fact-finding group as a Steering Committee as designated in the letter from 32963.
“This group has no authority, and is simply attempting to obtain information that can be presented to Council,” Clem wrote to Town Clerk Laura Aldrich to assist her in rejecting our records request.
Clem contends any information would be discussed at a workshop meeting in November.”