Faced with conflicting opinions about costs and whether proper procedures were followed, Lexington's Urban County Council has postponed consideration of a contract for infrastructure in the Distillery District west of downtown.
Like a growing number of things that happen at city hall, the decision has spilled over into the mayor's race.
Shortly after Tuesday's vote to table the proposed $1.7 million engineering contract with Strand Associates, Vice Mayor Jim Gray's campaign sent out a news release saying that Gray had "led a successful effort to protect taxpayer dollars from wasteful spending by Mayor Jim Newberry's administration."
The release compared the "cyclical pattern of abuse and wasteful spending" by Newberry's administration to reports from the 1980s about the military spending $640 for a toilet seat and $436 for a hammer.
Newberry shot back the next day when he followed Gray on Leland Conway's WLAP-AM radio program.
"This is just an example of the vice mayor trying to find another thing to criticize, another negative issue to raise against me as part of his political campaign," Newberry said.
Newberry and Gray are vying for the city's top job on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The issue that sparked the political fight is the first step toward new sidewalks, sewers, streetlights, parking and a portion of Town Branch Trail along Manchester Street where an arts-and-entertainment district is planned.
The proposed contract also was the first time the city has used a method called qualification-based selection for a project.
Councilman Jay McChord, who has been urging the city to adopt the method, says it's the best way to go on complicated purchases.
"When the city purchases something like stationery, it makes sense to get the lowest possible bid," he said. "When it comes to professional services, it might not be the best way to purchase those services."
Brian Marcum, the city's director of purchasing, said the city got eight proposals for the Distillery District engineering work, narrowed the list to three and chose Strand based on its ability to do the job, all without talking about fees.
"You can't let price skew your judgment on who is the most qualified firm," Marcum said. "What you end up with may be inferior because they were locked into a fee."
Failure to use the method could disqualify the project from some state and federal funds, he said.
The proposed $1.7 million contract with Strand specified that it would first conduct a $500,000 feasibility study. After receiving the feasibility study, Marcum said, the city could negotiate the fee for the rest of the work, or cancel the contract.
The proposal came before the council last week for the first of two required readings before it could be approved.
Councilwoman K.C. Crosbie began asking questions about the proposal, and Gray joined in.
"We interviewed several firms, did not ask their prices, then hired one and asked them what the fee would be," Gray said.
The proposal survived an attempt to table it, and made it through the first reading.
The next day, council members received the first of three letters from an attorney for EA Partners, which was one of the two finalists not chosen (the other was H.W. Lochner, Inc.). Attorney Mark Leach raised a number of questions about how the selection had been made, and he warned that awarding the contract to Strand could put state and federal funding at risk.
The council also got a letter from David Barberie, an attorney for the city, who said the process used to select Strand appeared to be legal.
Gray had more questions at a Tuesday afternoon work session.
He noted that $1.7 million for engineering is about 12 percent of what the city expects the infrastructure projects to cost. He said that was too high, noting that his own firm, Gray Construction, typically charged 4.1 percent for engineering. (Gray's company does no work for the city).
Marcum, the purchasing director, said the distillery district project is much more complex than ordinary construction because it involves existing buildings, an historic area, potential archaeological concerns, a railroad, possible road re-alignment and a trail.
Other council members also had questions, and a couple said they wanted answers before a second vote on the project, which was scheduled for Tuesday night.
When the issue came up Tuesday night, Gray moved to table it until the next council meeting.
Following a summer break, that meeting will be Aug. 19.
Parliamentary rules specify there can be no debate on a motion to table beyond the date the issue can come back. The council voted 8-2 to table.
Only Councilwoman Andrea James and Councilman Tom Blues, whose district includes the Distillery District and who were on the committee that selected Strand, voted to go forward.
On the Wednesday radio program, Newberry said Gray had called administration officials to get answers to some of the council's concerns between the meetings, but then he prohibited others from getting answers with his tabling motion.
"Had we been in a position to talk about it, we could have answered all these questions, but that would have messed up the plan to issue a press release from (Gray's) campaign," Newberry said.
Councilwoman Linda Gorton, who had voted against tabling the matter last week and for tabling on Tuesday, said there were just too many unanswered questions.
"I thought council members thought the best thing would be to table this until we had time to get some answers," she said.
Reach Andy Mead at (859) 231-3319 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3319.