On Tuesday, City Commissioners voted 4-1 to award a contract to LPW Architecture and TD&H engineering for the design and construction of a new aquatics and recreation center on the east side of Great Falls.
The award was based on the recommendation of city staff and the selection committee. However, the proposal submission process wasn’t without some controversy.
LPW and TD&H provided conceptual designs for the city pro bono during the initial grant application process, and other architecture and design firms who submitted proposals for the contract raised questions about fairness, suggesting that LPW/TD&H had a leg up.
Out of 10 proposals submitted to the city for consideration, three were ranked highest and brought in for interviews with a seven-member selection committee. Those firms were LPW/TD&H, Spark Architecture, and Nelson Architects.
According to Great Falls Park & Recreation director Steve Herrig, six of the seven members of the committee ranked LPW/TD&H as their top choice in both the written proposal and interview portion.
Representatives from Spark Architecture and Nelson Architects spoke on the record at Tuesday’s meeting, congratulating LPW on the contract and commending their work but questioning the ethics of providing pro bono consultation and design during the grant process. “When the dust settled and we found out our competition was doing work pro bono, that hit us kind of hard,” said Ryan Smith, managing partner of Nelson Architects. “From a city standpoint, how do you not accept that?”
Smith brought up a section of the American Institute of Architects Code of Ethics, which state: "Members may neither offer nor make any payment or gift, to a public official with the intent of influencing an official’s judgement in connection with an existing or prospective project."
“LPW offered pro bono work to obtain an unfair advantage and insight to this project,” Smith said. “Are they qualified for this project? Very much so. Did they get their foot in the door the right way? Not in my book.”
Sophia Sparklin of Spark Construction urged commissioners to alter the proposal process in the future to ensure that every firm is on a level playing field. She encouraged an open team design process. “TD&H is who we use, and they were exclusive (to LPW) and so were other local engineering firms. It was very hard for us to compete. It’s very unusual for an RFP (Request For Proposal) to ask for designs. We worked very, very hard on the designs. For those proposals, it probably cost about $20k just to go after the work.”
In response to a question from commissioner Rick Tryon about the perception of an unfair advantage, Herrig said there was none. “I’m not going to speak to the rest of the committee, but in my mind, no sir,” Herrig said. “The playing field was level. LPW’s work is top notch, their proposal and interview was very well done. They were prepared. I see no unfair advantages.”
Commissioner Mary Moe added that the process was not private or secret. The grant application and RFP were available for public viewing months ago, which is when concerns should have been brought up - not after the contract was already awarded. “That was the time to raise concerns. That was the time to raise them, and that time has passed,” Moe said. “We did not hear anything. “I think the city went far beyond what was required to make sure everyone got an equal chance.”
Herring added that the city was not required to hold a competitive request for proposals. “By state statute, we didn’t have to go after bids for proposals,” Herrig said. “We could have just appointed it. We felt this was the best way.”
Herrig added that LPW’s work during the grant application process wasn’t unfair. He had reached out to several firms on a Friday, and asked them to submit concepts by the following Wednesday - with Monday being a holiday. LPW’s work would have been selected even if they weren’t offering services pro bono.
Mayor Bob Kelly sat in on several meetings with the selection committee and praised their detailed selection process. “We have to make sure that everyone was put back to zero, no one had a leg up,” Kelly said. “There was incredibly robust and vibrant discussion of the RFP’s. I was happy with the process.”
Tryon was the sole commissioner who voted against awarding the contract to LPW/TD&H, stating that the public needed more time to review the process.
The next step is for city staff to contract negotiations with LPW/TD&H and continue work on the land swap with the Great Falls Public Schools district for land near the Seibel soccer park.
Per the requirements of the Department of Defense grant, the city must break ground on the new center within a year and complete construction within five years.