Miller-Driscoll School Project: Uproar results in contract compromise
Insults were hurled at Thursday night’s specially convened Board of Selectmen meeting, where the selectmen voted 3-2 to push, through heavy public resistance, six of the 13 “critical” trade contracts recommended by the Miller-Driscoll Building Committee for the Miller-Driscoll School renovation, authorizing the first selectman to sign and execute them on behalf of the town.
The special session was called in the wake of the contentious regular meeting on Nov. 2. Selectmen were slated to vote on whether or not they would delegate administrative power to the first selectman, allowing him or her, whoever sits in that seat, to award construction bids for the $50 million project.
Members of the public flooded town hall Nov. 2 to demand the selectmen not “abnegate” their powers, out of what many termed a “fiduciary responsibility to constituents.”
Since then, however, public comment has grown to reflect a larger concern — that residents are not satisfied with the degree of transparency in Wilton’s government, and public attendants to the special meeting Nov. 5 brought up perceived issues that ranged from the failure of democracy down to specifics of the project plan and contracts.
After intense deliberations and heated public comment, compromising, but nevertheless “voting [his] heart,” First Selectman Bill Brennan suggested a motion be made to authorize the first selectman to sign six contracts deemed “absolutely critical at this point” by construction manager Ty Tregellas of Turner Construction.
The motion was made by Selectman Dick Dubow and seconded by Deborah McFadden. She, Dubow and Brennan voted in favor of the resolution, while Michael Kaelin and Ken Dartley voted against.
In September 2014, the $50-million Miller-Driscoll School Project was approved by a slim margin at a special town meeting.
The project has been unanimously approved by the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Education and the Board of Finance.
The 13 “critical” trade packages were unanimously recommended by the Miller-Driscoll Building Committee on Nov. 2, for approval by the Board of Selectmen.
The state of Connecticut requires that contracts for major public projects be awarded to the lowest, qualified bidders, and that any contract involving payment of more than $500,000 be selected from a state-prequalified list of vendors. The bids will hold for 60 days.
That leaves little discretion with either the construction manager or the town. While the town by its own charter may choose to go with a more expensive bid, it is not in the selectmen’s best legal interest, due to the threat of litigation from the state as well as civil parties.
Tregellas went through each of the 13 recommended contracts, one-by-one, and explained why Turner and the building committee felt 12 of them could not wait.
This has much to do with timing. Because Miller-Driscoll is a school, the project plan and schedule are hinged on windows of time when class is not in session, namely, the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.
But what Turner and the building committee fear is not so much the loss of those opportunities, but the resulting downstream loss of summer vacation, a period when the school will be unoccupied for three months.
According to Tregellas, a delay on contract execution now could mean “a year delay” on the project’s completion, because work scheduled to be done over Thanksgiving and Christmas would be postponed until February break, which would compromise that summer window.
“Three weeks means I lose two months, and when I lose two months, I lose the window for the summer. It’s a domino,” Tregellas said. “It will not be ready in the summer if we don’t start now.”
Phase Two of the project, a major renovation of the bulk of the Miller portion of the school, is scheduled to be undertaken then.
“That will put that whole second phase at risk,” Tregellas said, “and I haven’t even begun to think about how to re-phase this project,” implying the exponential complexity of deviating from the project schedule.
The selectmen weigh in
Though he maintained that each of the 12 contracts needed urgent signature, Tregellas, after hours of public scrutiny, agreed to “adhere to the spirit of compromise,” and at Brennan’s request prioritized six of the 12 bid packages: demolition and abatement, concrete, plumbing, fire protection, HVAC and controls, and electrical.
Put to a straw poll, the selectmen offered their opinions.
“My preference would be to do the package,” Dubow said. “[But] if that gets us a vote tonight and keeps the project on schedule — I’m relying on Ty’s assurance that that’s the case — I’ll vote for it.”
“I am not going to vote to approve any contract tonight,” said Kaelin, “and the reason I’m not going to vote for any contract tonight, is because, in the last three days, I can’t count the number of emails I got from constituents asking me not to vote for this. I can count how many emails I got from constituents asking me to vote for this, because there weren’t any.
“The ultimate problem we have with this project is legitimacy, and if you want to kill the legitimacy of this project, go ahead and vote to approve these contracts tonight, because all that’s going to do is keep the people that you’re keeping on the outside throwing stones at the people on the inside.”
McFadden observed a conflict between two of the primary issues talked about in Wilton: poor communication and high taxes, and weighed them accordingly.
“My fear is, if we don’t approve some of these contracts tonight, it’s going to cost us, and it’s going to cost the taxpayers more money. I’m hearing transparency is an issue … and taxes are an issue,” she said.
“Is it more important to have more time so more people can see it? Or is it more important that we stay and keep this schedule so we don’t have cost overruns down the road. Two of the principal issues that everybody’s concerned about are coming head to head, and that happens sometimes, where you have to make tough choices.
“My personal opinion is, I think we ought to proceed with a vote tonight. I think it’s genuinely in the best interest of the town.”
Dartley simply did not trust the contracts, his mistrust arising out of a storied professional background in sales.
“I will not vote to move any contracts forward,” stated Dartley. “I’ve been in business way too long. Every time somebody said, ‘You’ve gotta do this today,’ I stepped back, and usually, not always, but usually, the result was to both benefits.”
The first selectman speaks
After all was said and done, Brennan gave his thoughts on what was before him and the Board of Selectmen.
“I’ve been weighing the decision about possibly deferring the vote,” he said.
“When I balance what’s going to happen just by kicking the can down the road, I come to the conclusion that the situation is going to be pretty much the same situation in December when the new board sits down, with many people concerned about specific information, different information, all sorts of extraneous problems. So I’m not so sure what’s going to be accomplished by delaying. I’m very concerned that we have a major facility that needs to be renovated.
“What we’re doing here is trying to build more confidence and be more open, and we certainly put all the documents up, everything we said we would do. We’ve given the spreadsheets out. We’ve indicated we got favorable bids from the various contractors with potential savings.
“We’ve got a very, very appealing project here, but we don’t want to screw it all up by unnecessary delays of two or three months, and missing a window, and then, possibly, if we don’t get anything accomplished in December when the new board sits down, we could possibly have to rebid the bids. That’s very costly; this project can start going down the hill.
“I am very much not interested in seeing delays that cause potential increases in the cost of this project. We’re all concerned with the children of Wilton — this is about the children of Wilton.
“As Anthony LoFrisco said last night, we need to get on with it. We need to get this thing going, or we’ll be sitting here a year from now still talking about it, and the cost will be another five or six million dollars on top of it.”
With that, the resolution was put to a vote and narrowly passed.
Comments from elects
During the course of the meeting, Brennan gauged the opinions of the newly elected selectman and first selectman, David Clune and Lynne Vanderslice, respectively.
Vanderslice urged the selectmen to convene additional special meetings if they needed more time to make the proper decision, but she placed her trust in the board if it were to swing the other way.
“There’s an opportunity to have more special meetings,” Vanderslice said. “I think you have to look at the information and make you’re own decision; that’s what you were elected to do. If you’re not ready to make it tonight, and you feel like you need some more information, if you have to meet next week, you meet next week.
“I’m going to leave it to each one of you, because I haven’t reviewed the documents. If you’ve done you’re due diligence, or you feel you need to do more, then I think you should speak up and say that,” Vanderslice said.
Clune observed a need for greater transparency, but suggested that satisfying that need and moving the project forward are not mutually exclusive and can both be achieved simultaneously.
“I would agree with Lynne, that, if you feel that there’s more for you to look at, then, by all means, you should take that opportunity,” said Clune, “but if there’s a way to continue to move the project forward now, and do what Mike wants to do, to share more information with people — can we do those two things simultaneously? Meaning that you have a resolution that allows you to move forward so you don’t lose very much time, but then, whatever additional information that is possible to provide, that can be made available for people that want to see it.”
Wilton resident Marianne Gustafson was furious with the process by which the bids were vetted.
“Of course the building needs to be redone,” she said. “I don’t particularly like to have last-minute efforts, contracts that have to be signed under duress, because that’s what it is. Those prototype documents could have been given to each of the [selectmen] and the new ones or any of the people running for office to review to make sure we have remedies.
“We need to change how this done. This cannot be ‘trust me.’ This has to be, ‘We want each of you collaborating, looking at all of these contracts, not under pressure, not under duress.
“This is not what we want in our town. We need the time; they need the time. We’ve got very competent and caring people; they should be a part of this process.”
On the other side, resident and former First Selectman Paul Hannah gave his prediction of the future of the Miller-Driscoll School if the project were to start going down the road of delays.
“A short delay will cause scrambling, unnecessary angina, time delay and some extra cost,” he began. “A longer delay will cost more. A still longer delay will cause the project to rebid and will cost much more. And killing the project, the goal of Sensible Wilton, will cost a fair amount. There is $6 million committed to date. Damages may be mitigated, but they will not go down to an acceptable level.
“After the project has been killed, the roof will still leak, cold wind and snow will still come through the drafty windows, and the air conditioners will still be too noisy. It will be a sad result for the town I have called home for 41 years. And it will certainly not be good for the Wilton brand, which we have heard a lot about during the election and which everyone is committed to improve.”
The Board of Selectmen will vote whether to delegate power to the first selectman to sign the remaining contracts at the next regular meeting on Nov. 16.
The board will assume its newly elected composition Dec. 1.
The Miller-Driscoll School Project trade packages are publically available in the Office of the Town Clerk in Town Hall and online at WiltonCT.org