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Contract causes Columbus controversy

Posted 12/22/15 (Tue)

By Sydney Glasoe Caraballo
The City of Columbus is embroiled in conflict over costs associated with a construction project, a petition for the resignation of one council member, the possible resignation of the Mayor and the appearance of a possible conflict of interest on the part of the city auditor.
The issues came to a boil as a result of a special meeting called last week to consider change orders on contracts unrelated to the controversy.
Questions have percolated in the community for months as residents questioned the award of a street project to Ellsworth Family Industries (EFI), an entity owned by the daughter of the city auditor. 
Now EFI is seeking even more funds for the work and a city motion made last month to deny the request is in question because the auditor’s minutes show the matter was tabled.
Special meeting
The Columbus City Council was given a petition at a special meeting Wednesday last week to recall commissioner Enrique Taborda, who previously had been appointed to a vacant seat expiring next June.
Resident Shelley Nelson circulated the petition, saying she questioned whether proper procedure was followed regarding the appointment.
Sandy Raines presided at the meeting and noted receipt of the petition.
Mayor Scott Kihle was unable to attend due to a death in the family. Council member Denis Hunstead (the spouse of City Auditor Sharon Hunstead) was also unable to attend.
Following the meeting, Raines said the petition stems in part from resident concerns about procedures, construction projects and quality and cost of work regarding general contractors hired by the council.
“Residents want black and white justification for the money being spent,” Raines said. “And that is a fair request.”
Raines said it’s important for residents to know their concerns are heard and taken into consideration.
“We need to do things with integrity so we can move forward,” Raines said.
Ellsworth contract
Shelley Nelson – one of approximately 20 other residents attending the special meeting – said she had no issue with the requests from D.L. Barkie and KLJ, but she was concerned about EFI, which submitted a change order for the city regarding street repairs the company completed on First and Third streets this past summer. She was worried the council had tabled EFI’s change order request at the regular December meeting and would approve it at the special meeting.
Resident JoAnn Lundstad also believed EFI’s change order request, which was approximately $110,000 -- nearly double the original bid and submitted to the council in November -- might be approved.
“Ellsworth put in a bid for $134,000. That’s 82 percent above the original bid,” said Lundstad, who doesn’t support the council paying EFI any additional money. 
“It’s totally out of line,” Lundstad said. 
Other Columbus residents may have also assumed EFI’s request was tabled and pending approval if they read a draft of minutes of the Dec. 7 meeting, which were published last week in the Burke County Tribune.
According to the draft by Sharon Hunstead, the motion was to table the request and last weekend, she stood by that version of events.
But Kihle and Raines, both reached by phone over the weekend, recall the action differently. They say the council voted to deny the request.
 The minutes currently state that Raines made a motion to table change order requests from D.L. Barkie, KLJ and EFI. They read: “After some discussion Raines made the motion to table the issues until the Mayor can get some additional information, 2nd by Ronning. All present voted Aye. Motion carried.”
Raines said the motion regarding EFI’s request was separate from the others.
“I made the motion to disapprove the change order request,” said Raines.
Raines said David Ronning seconded her motion. Kihle repeated the motion and asked for a vote. Both she and Ronning said, “Aye.” Kihle then asked if any council members were opposed, and Denis Hunstead  remained silent, according to Raines.
Kihle agreed with Raines’ assessment of their December meeting. 
“We denied the change order without further information,” said Kihle, adding that he has contacted the city’s attorney, Pat Durick, regarding the change order request and the council’s decision.
Raines said she based her motion to disapprove the request because the change order was made after the project had already been completed, and it was a request for further payment of labor that had occurred.
Raines said she has learned from previous projects that a construction superintendent should be present to oversee the quality of work done and the timeline in which it is completed.
“The council has lost integrity because we have hired people in the past we though we could trust,” Raines said. 
KLJ change order
During the special meeting Raines asked Brice Nelson of KLJ to explain his change order request for an additional $42, 511 to the board and crowd. KLJ was hired by the city of Columbus to submit bid specifications, receive bids, recommend approving a bid and submit requests for payment to the ND Dept. of Health for the construction project to install water meters, gate valves and curb stops in the city of Columbus.
“Construction deadline delays added to the cost,” Brice Nelson said.
He explained that phase one of the project lasted much longer from the original 15-day estimate and instead lasted 56 days, for which he had daily field reports.
Randy Halvorson of DL Barkie further detailed why the construction project took longer than originally estimated, as well as the increased scope of work.
Halvorson said once his crew started digging down to the water lines they discovered seepage water had saturated and destroyed the soil’s integrity for proper compaction. To eliminate potential dips and uneven settling, the contractor had to haul in multiple loads of class-five gravel, which were not in the original estimate.
Halvorson added his Fargo-based crew stayed on the job in Columbus for nearly a month to ensure phase one of the job was completed before winter set in. 
“We haven’t seen one dime of payment yet,” Halvorson said. “I’m a man of my word. We want to do a perfect job for you.”
Several residents then voiced appreciation for DL Barkie’s work.
“We appreciate that you’re looking us in the eye and asking us and not gouging us,” said Shelley Nelson. “We appreciate your integrity.”
Shelley Nelson said she has no quarrel with contractors who do a good job.
“But if [contractors] make a mistake, they should fix it at their own expense,” she said. “I would rather have surplus money go back to the state than have an individual misappropriating our funds.”
January looms
Kihle on Sunday said he is disappointed residents called into question the legality of the council holding a special meeting, and also, the legality of  Taborda’s appointment. 
Raines asserted Wednesday that the special meeting followed state law.
She welcomes continued dialogue with residents. 
“We’re all in this together and want to do our best,” she said.
Kihle said he is frustrated by rumors and misinformation in the community to the point of debating his own future as the town’s mayor. 
“It’s difficult with family and work to have enough time to devote to it,” he said. “It doesn’t do the position any justice.”
The mayor said he has also been told he would be run out of his position because of the controversy surrounding EFI’s street repairs. Kihle said EFI may attend the January meeting and ask for consideration again, but residents are mistaken if they think the council did not already deny EFI’s change order request at the December meeting.
Charlie Ellsworth of EFI said a representative of the company will attend the Jan. 6 council meeting. He justified the request for more money because of having to dig deeper than the original contract specified.
“Hopefully, everything will be resolved on the 6th,” Ellsworth said.
Ellsworth declined to comment further and disconnected the call while being asked for contact information for EFI’s owner.
Sharon Hunstead, who said her daughter owns EFI, declined to provide contact information for her but was willing to discuss the special meeting.
Hunstead said the change order requests made by DL Barkie and KLJ are funded by the ND Dept. of Health’s state revolving loan fund (SRF). The SRF requires the city to pay 40 percent of the loan back with the remaining 60 percent forgiven by the federal government, according to Hunstead.
The city council approved the change order request for $42,511 to KLJ and a $29,648 change order request for D.L. Barkie at the special meeting. D.L. Barkie’s original bid submitted to KLJ was $359,000 for phase one. The project will be completed in the spring after D.L. Barkey installs the black top.
Shelley Nelson said afterward she was pleased with the council’s decisions at the special meeting. 
Lundstad echoed Nelson’s hope after the meeting, that more may be resolved in January.
“I would like the community to come together and work it out,” she said. “There is a lot at stake.”
Columbus City Council’s next meeting will be at 7 p.m., Jan. 6, at the Legion building in Columbus.