Farris could face heat for intervening in trail project
Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris may come under fire at a public meeting next week because of her intervention in the bidding process to build the next segment of the Rio Grande Trail.Farris, the county’s representative on the board that oversees the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, has been criticized by fellow RFTA board members, as well as staff, for what appears to be an attempt to steer the $250,000 contract to M&M Construction of Glenwood Springs.Farris has consistently defended her involvement in the selection process, which included sitting in on interviews between RFTA staff and the two finalists in the section process. She said she became concerned that the process unfairly rewarded experienced firms over inexperienced ones. And to drive that point home she has pointed out on several occasions that M&M Construction was the low bidder on the trail project.But according to a RFTA source, Farris’s involvement appears to have gone deeper than many RFTA staff members and board members are comfortable with. The source said Farris gave M&M representatives proprietary information about rival Aspen Earthmoving’s proposal, perhaps setting up an appeal by M&M owner Keysha Bailey.”She was almost bragging about it a few weeks ago, but she hasn’t been lately,” the RFTA source of Farris. The source spoke with The Aspen Times on condition of anonymity.When asked if the allegation was true, Farris said, “I don’t think I’m going to answer that question.” She did, however, admit that she had conversations with M&M representatives. “I don’t remember in which order things happened,” she said.Farris has also said she and her husband have a social relationship with Bailey.Last week, Renee Black, RFTA’s in-house attorney, said she was looking into the contacts between Farris and M&M during the bidding process. Black said her findings would likely be presented to the full RFTA board at next Thursday’s meeting.Even if the allegations against Farris are true, it apparently did not affect the final outcome. In July, RFTA’s procurement committee, made up of staff members and a representative from the Pitkin County Public Works Department, selected Carbondale-based Aspen Earthmoving over M&M Construction for the 1.1-mile extension of the trail from its current end in Emma to Hook Spur Lane near El Jebel.The Rio Grande bicycle and pedestrian trail begins in Aspen and runs along an old railroad right of way to the midvalley neighborhood of Emma. RFTA, which owns and manages the entire length of the rail corridor from Glenwood Springs to Woody Creek, has plans for a continuous bicycle trail from one end of the valley to the other.RFTA Executive Director Dan Blankenship confirmed that M&M’s initial bid was about $30,000 below Aspen Earthmoving’s. But he said the gap closed at the end of the interviews when the companies were asked to if they could cut costs further.”M&M said their bid was pretty much there – within 5 percent,” Blankenship said. “Aspen Earthmoving had several ideas that would cut project costs.”Once Aspen Earthmoving indicated it could build the trail at a cost close to that of M&M, the Carbondale-based firm’s experience in building much of the Rio Grande Trail in Pitkin County tilted the judging in its favor. M&M does have some experience with trail building, including the path that runs along the side of Highway 133 in Carbondale.Because the Rio Grande Trail is being built without detailed engineering plans, contractors have to work from a sketch plan and make design decisions in the field. Both Blankenship and RFTA Finance Director Heather Copp said it is not unusual to factor in experience and select a more expensive bidder when the so-called design-build method is being used. Copp, who spent the better part of a decade at the Colorado Department of Transportation before joining RFTA, said the design-build method is used for much larger projects than the Rio Grande Trail, including large portions of the massive T-Rex expansion of Interstate 25 through Denver.Farris came under scrutiny at RFTA after she showed up at the procurement committee interviews with the two companies.”I don’t feel I was being inappropriate,” she said. “I wanted to get as much information as I could before making any comments.”Last month, Farris told The Aspen Times that she sat quietly in on the interviews, listening and watching the process and asking only clarifying questions. She said she did not offer any opinions. Procurement committee members remember differently, however. They say she asked questions that couldn’t be construed as “clarifying” and offered opinions.The RFTA source said Farris discussed the Aspen Earthmoving bid with M&M representatives sometime after the interviews with the procurement committee, but before a review of the bids and the selection process was ordered by Jacque Whitsitt, the RFTA board chairwoman and Basalt town councilwoman. M&M notified RFTA of its intent to appeal the award within just a day or two after Aspen Earthmoving was selected, but several days before it received written notification from RFTA.At RFTA’s July 16 meeting, the day after RFTA sent letters of notification to the two companies, Farris called for the award to be withdrawn and the project rebid. She justified her suggestion by pointing out that Pitkin County’s procurement code, which RFTA is using while it creates its own procurement policies, does not allow contracts to be awarded until the money to pay for it is in the bank.The Emma to Hook Spur trail improvement is being paid for largely with state grant money that was awarded last spring. The actual check has yet to be sent, however. Pitkin County’s assistant county manager, Debbie Quinn, said the county regularly sends out notices of award and even signs contracts with vendors and contractors before grant money arrives, but the contracts contain contingency clauses that bar the contractor or vendor from beginning work until the money arrives. Doing so allows everyone to be ready to work once the money is in the bank. Farris’ involvement appears likely to jeopardize her ability to vote on the M&M appeal if it ends up before the RFTA board, which is where such appeals eventually end up. quasi-judicial whenever a procurement award is appealed. Blankenship reckons Farris will have to recuse herself from any matters involving M&M and the Emma to Hook Spur trail extension.Whitsitt said she didn’t think there was much the RFTA board can do about the situation. There are very few things that can be done to an elected official from another jurisdiction. And she wasn’t sure that any real action was warranted.”Sometimes we step in places where we shouldn’t be when we’re trying to do the right thing and protect people’s rights,” Whitsitt said.[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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