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Showdown in Columbus ends with payment, resignations

Posted 1/12/16 (Tue)

Showdown in Columbus ends with payment, resignations

By Cecile Krimm
Columbus is advertising for a new city auditor, has a new interim mayor and will also need to fill at least one vacancy on its city council in the wake of action Wednesday approving a payment of $95,000 to a contractor, despite anecdotal evidence the sum might not be completely justified.
“I feel like the city of Columbus got robbed,” said resident Shelley Nelson.
During the tense, three hour city meeting, Columbus Mayor Scott Kihle announced the resignation of City Auditor Sharon Hunstead, seated at his side. Next, he told about three dozen residents gathered at the community center he is also stepping down.
“I hate to go out like that,” said Kihle, who has given 16 years of service, 10 as mayor.
Still later, Hunstead’s husband, another council member, said he will resign as soon as his wife can help a new auditor get started.
At more than one point during the proceedings, Kihle admonished audience members to remain civil, most notably when a contractor told Nelson to “shut the f - - k up.”
Council member Sandy Raines will serve as interim mayor. She said she is hoping the change in leadership will help “mend fences.”
“What I think the people are looking for is transparency, integrity and information about why decisions are being made,” said Raines, who was the lone vote against the payment to Ellsworth Family Industries (EFI).
Kihle told the crowd the city attorney advised paying the contractor a “fair and equitable” price for the work performed in order to avoid a threatened lawsuit and despite multiple questions about the scope and time involved in the project.
Kihle said his own lack of time to adequately deal with city business and the board’s decision to do the street project without an engineer’s oversight “bit us in the back.”
In the end, he said, the city wound up paying nearly a quarter of a million dollars to fix some bumps in a couple of gravel streets.
“I think we could have driven over the bumps,” said Columbus resident Karen Oas.
“I am starting to think we should have driven over the bumps, too,” said Kihle.
Brought to a head
The controversy over the EFI contract has been brewing since its award last summer. EFI is owned by Jimmie Martin, Hunstead’s daughter. Charges of nepotism in the award of the contract and criticism that Kihle was being unduly influenced by the city auditor swirled for months. In addition, residents expressed concern about a felony theft of property case against Hunstead three years ago, in which she pled guilty to one of four counts and received a deferred imposition of sentence. The case was related to private business dealings between Hunstead and a local water hauler and did not involve city funds.
But it wasn’t until the conclusion of work on the streets, around the end of October, that the controversy came to a full boil. That’s when the city was presented with a bill of $111,000 over and above the $134,000 contract originally awarded.
During the meeting, Martin said she was willing to drop the new bill by $10,000 following negotiations with a subcontractor. Later, after Kihle complained about gravel hauling costs he said were double what they should be, Martin agreed to lower the bill another $7,000, to just under $95,000 in additional costs.
Martin said the added charges related to labor and equipment costs when the scope of work changed from patching eight soft spots to nearly rebuilding two streets “side to side.” Instead of digging down two or three feet on the soft spots alone, Martin said they had to dig down to six feet on much of the project, which also required significantly more gravel hauling and $20,000 more in gravel cost, which the city paid directly to the gravel company.
Poking holes
At least five residents, along with the city’s maintenance man, Raymond MacBeth, and Raines, raised issues at the meeting, disagreeing with Martin’s description of the scope and length of time spent on the job.
“The project stood vacant for several weeks,” Raines said, though she acknowledged she hadn’t kept a journal.
“I got one right here,” said Martin, who several times referred to a daily log the company keeps on labor and equipment hours. “Every time we’ve been asked for more information we’ve brought it,” Martin said.
Around this point, when resident Shelley Nelson attempted to speak, Martin used the F-word and told her to shut up.
“Right now, let’s tone it down,” Kihle admonished.
Later, resident Cal Cooley complained under his breath of Martin’s partner, Charles Ellsworth, “He hasn’t done anything right since he got here.”
The comment drew another scolding from Kihle.
“I don’t need this arguing in the background and don’t accuse people in here either, Jimmie,” said Kihle to Martin.
MacBeth disagreed with Martin’s assertion they dug six feet on most of the road. 
“It was more like four feet,” he said, and that depth “more or less in the center” of the roadway only.
Resident JoAnn Lundstad concurred with MacBeth.
“I did not see my whole road down five feet deep . . . I would have fallen in the hole if was five feet deep,” she said.
“How do we know they’re not just trying to balloon the whole thing?” asked resident Don Bingman. “Why isn’t it up to the contractor to prove this is necessary?”
“I’ll be the first one to admit we tried to cut corners by not having an engineer,” said Kihle, who also took responsibility for giving EFI a verbal go ahead for extra work without knowing what it would end up costing.
Hunstead said one of the reasons an engineer was not hired was because the legislation authorizing the award of state “surge” funds expressly did not “want to waste it on engineering companies.”
Proof of labor not available
As the discussion moved well into its second hour, Raines again questioned the amount of labor asking about time sheets of employees. Martin once again made reference to her “daily” sheets, saying that information is available on her computer at home. She said she could have those sheets to the city by 8 a.m. Thursday morning.
“We’re willing to wait a half hour,” said Nelson.
If, as Martin asserted, it was all on her computer, “It should be able to be pulled up right way,” said Nelson.
Martin then left the meeting to retrieve the documentation and it was during this period that Kihle announced his and Hunstead’s resignations.
Kihle thanked Hunstead for her five years of service. For himself, he said he would not risk his career with Customs and Border Protection over allegations of improper city business, nor does he have the time to do the job of mayor justice.
“I wish the council the best of luck in finding a replacement for me and I hope some of the other people in this room will step up to the plate and help out a little bit,” Kihle said. “It’s your opportunity to make the changes you would like.”
Hunstead made no statement to residents about her decision to resign. She did discuss some state reports she needs to finish and she said it will take several weeks to advertise, hire and get a new auditor started. She intends to work until those things are accomplished, probably until sometime in February, she said.
Commissioners determined the auditor’s job listing will be open until Jan. 29.
A ‘sad’ business
In addition to concerns raised by residents about the EFI contract, Kihle took issue with hours attributed to some of the machinery -- a drum roller and an excavator -- each of which were billed out for 141 hours. That would be the equivalent, said Kihle, of more than 40 hours a week of operation for more than three weeks straight.
Martin returned to the meeting about 40 minutes after her departure without the labor documentation, saying it would not be accurate because it would not include the labor provided by a subcontractor. She repeated her offer to bring the documentation in the morning.
“This is probably a big lesson learned and it was an expensive one,” said Kihle, but he told commissioners he doesn’t see how the city can get by without paying the bill.
Commissioners Rico Taborda and David Ronning both expressed concern that to refuse payment any longer could cost the city more in the long run.
Kihle suggested residents take solace that it was all state money, not their property tax dollars used on the project, to which Nelson replied, “when you get a gift you want to take care of it.”
After the meeting, Nelson said the money could have been better used on a playground or some kind of city beautification. Though she led much of the opposition on behalf of residents -- preparing a recall on Taborda’s position and also a document calling for Hunstead’s resignation along with a request for a forensic audit of city books  -- Nelson said she was never after Kihle’s resignation.
“It’s just a sad deal, the whole deal is,” said Nelson, adding she is relieved by the departure of Hunstead from city government.
“That’s exactly what we were after from the beginning, is to remove her,” Nelson said, because of the appearance of conflicts of interest.