As the City Council approved another contract to build the Civic Center on Tuesday night, officials again found themselves on the defensive.
At least one resident and Councilwoman Leslie Daigle questioned a $125,000 contract item that allowed the public works department to hire an outside building plan inspector without undergoing a formal review of competitors' qualifications.
Instead of creating a new contract for the consultant, the city included the Civic Center services in an existing contract with a firm working on other projects.
Ultimately, the council approved the agreement unanimously. But the vote raised another issue with the roughly $130 million Civic Center, a project that has grown significantly in scale and cost over time.
Daigle asked who decided to handle the contract this way, and Dolores Otting, an activist and former council candidate, said that skipping the formal qualification process might leave the city vulnerable to higher costs.
Ed Selich, chairman of the City Council Building Committee, defended the action. "It seemed to be the most cost-effective way to keep this project on schedule," he said.
The city needed to retain the consultant, Colorado-based Interwest Consulting Group, so it could approve the Civic Center building plans in time to meet a federal government bond deadline, public works Director Steve Badum said before the meeting.
To do that, it added Interwest to an existing agreement with Anderson Penna Partners, a Laguna Beach based firm that had been hired to help with other public works projects such as those for water lines and sewers.
Badum said that to wait for the council to approve a new contract would be cost-prohibitive. The contract maneuvering, he said, was within the council's guidelines.
"We did not short-cut our process to do this. This happens quite a bit," he said.
Badum and other officials have said that the city is working quickly to meet deadlines for the Build America Bonds program, a 2009 Treasury Department stimulus initiative that allows local governments to borrow money for capital projects at a cost lower than usual.
In order to qualify for that program, Badum and other city officials say, the Civic Center's plans must have passed the building department checks by Nov. 1.
But buildings director Jay Elbettar said that his team was prepared to process the plans by the necessary deadline. Badum, he said, wanted to use a third party instead.
"We can meet those deadlines," Elbettar said before Tuesday's meeting. "It's not uncommon for us to deal on projects with strict timelines."
In the beginning of September, Elbettar handed over the plan-checking duties to Interwest.