Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Stadium overseer got $1M in private

Commissioners OK'd deal as a 'change order'

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County commissioners approved spending $1 million of taxpayer money in October for Paul Brown Stadium without debating the issue in public or formally voting on it.

        It was the second such action — involving a total of $1.7 million in sales tax revenue — approved by commissioners with a private nod rather than a public discussion.

        The commissioners defended their decision, but a stadium critic says it illustrates how the county does public business outside of the public's view.

        In the latest instance, commissioners were asked in June to increase the fee of the Paul Brown Stadium construction manager, Turner Barton Malow DAG (TBMD), by $980,000.

        The additional fee was dis covered by The Cincinnati Enquirer after reviewing documents obtained through an Ohio Open Records request.

        TBMD wanted the extra cash because hundreds of changes to individual contracts for stadium work — the major cause of $45 million in cost overruns — were piling up.

        In order to have the stadium open on time, TBMD said it needed more personnel to process the so-called “change orders.”

        Officials with the county's Public Works Department ran the request by commissioners, who gave approval.

        “We wanted the board to know about this because we knew the Bengals were opposed and that it'd be controversial,” said Public Works Director Gary Van Hart. “Even on big change orders that may not be controversial, we try to let them know.”

        But commissioners never let the public know. They never discussed the problem in public, as is customary for other public works projects.

        “We were aware of it and did bless it,” Commissioner John Dowlin said.

        When asked if he thinks the public has a right to know about significant changes at the stadium, Mr. Dowlin said he does.

        “I think we should be open about the changes happening at the stadium,” Mr. Dowlin said. “We should be public about changes of a significant dollar amount.”

        But that never happened.

        Tim Mara, a Cincinnati lawyer who has sued the county over issues in the Bengals' lease, said commissioners have a pattern of not conducting business in public.

        Mr. Mara sued the commissioners over allegations that the board approved giving $2 million to the city for a riverfront road project during a closed-door executive session. The commissioners ultimately took a second, public vote.

        “The commissioners are either delegating their authority to the Public Works Department or making tacit decisions outside of public meetings,” Mr. Mara said. “Either way, it's a problem.”

        Mr. Mara said the commissioners could not have talked about increasing the management fee without discussing the underlying problem — cost overruns.

        Commissioners knew about the cost overruns in August 1999, but waited until February to disclose the problem.

        “It would have opened up a can of worms, and they didn't want to do that,” Mr. Mara said.

        Using million-dollar change orders isn't illegal, said Carl Stich, assistant prosecutor and chief legal adviser to the county. He said there is no dollar cap for change orders.

        Commissioner Tom Neyer said he thinks the situation was handled properly. He said the request for an additional construction management fee, which was made in May, did not raise a red flag about possible overruns.

        “That's not the way the matter was explained at the time,” Mr. Neyer said. “It was simply a beefing up of the construction manager's capacity to process the (work).”

        Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus did not return repeated phone calls on Monday.

        An unrelated change order, approved by commissioners in September, cost taxpayers an additional $750,000. But taxpayers didn't know about that change, either, because it was never discussed or voted on.

        That was a change to the stadium's seating bowl, which will allow sections of the lower bowl to be removed so the facility can host World Cup soccer matches.

        Again, commissioners knew of the additional cost and told the Public Works Department to handle it with a change order.

        In both cases, the change orders were covered with a construction contingency fund, which is meant to pay for unexpected construction costs.

        That fund, which was $8 million at the start of the project, was not enough to cover $45 million in cost overruns.


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