HANCOCK COUNTY – Yet-to-be-located record of a vote authorizing a signed agreement with a construction company is giving officials pause as they consider millions of dollars in improvements to county government buildings.
The Hancock County Council introduced an ordinance earlier this week to issue general obligation bonds in an original principal amount not to exceed $5,575,000. The funds would be used for several projects. One includes renovations to the county’s former jail downtown, where officials plan to move community corrections. Another is renovating the current community corrections site, where the county prosecutor’s office is slated to move. Improvements to the county’s highway department, basement at the courthouse annex and Purdue Extension are also outlined.
During discussion on the ordinance at the county council meeting, council member Keely Butrum referred to a contract with BW Construction signed by county commissioners president John Jessup. The agreement is dated Oct. 19, 2021 and has a county timestamp of Nov. 2, 2021, but Butrum said she can’t find a record of the commissioners voting to authorize Jessup to sign the contract after reviewing meeting minutes, meeting video and meeting audio.
“I’d be happy for anybody to prove me wrong, but I’ve watched the videos, I’ve listened to the audio where videos are missing, and there’s no vote anywhere that I can locate anywhere on this contract,” Butrum said.
Jessup countered that the commissioners voted in a public meeting to approve an agreement with BW Construction to serve as the county’s construction manager as advisor – a project delivery method.
“We don’t do anything outside meetings,” Jessup said. “There are times when I sign documents outside of meetings when I’m expressly authorized to by the board of commissioners, and I was expressly authorized to sign that.”
The issue compounds concerns over Jessup’s relationship with BW Construction, as he disclosed with the state that the company contracts him as a construction superintendent through his wife’s business. He maintains he does not work as a superintendent on projects between BW Construction and Hancock County government.
Still, it prompted the county commissioners last month to table consideration of a proposal for exploring infrastructure needs from a team including BW Construction until state officials can evaluate any potential conflicts of interest.
Marc Huber, a county commissioner, told the Daily Reporter he remembers talking about the agreement assigning BW Construction as construction manager as advisor.
“Can I remember the exact motion and when it was made and all? No, but I know I’ve seen the document and I know I was thrilled that BW wanted to do another project for us, because they did such a good job on the jail for us,” Huber said.
He referred to how the company delivered the new county jail east of Greenfield with space for the sheriff’s department administration – not initially part of the project – and that it was on time and under-budget during a pandemic.
Bill Spalding, a county commissioner, told the Daily Reporter he doesn’t recall voting on the agreement naming BW Construction as construction manager as advisor.
“Right now I don’t remember it,” Spalding said. “I would have to go back and look at the meeting minutes and the meeting audio to see if that was done.”
Mary Noe, a county council member, noted at the recent council meeting that the contract with BW Construction was never uploaded to Indiana Gateway, an online service that collects and provides access to information about how taxes and other public dollars are budgeted and spent by the state’s local government units.
“So it gives it an appearance that it was a one-man decision,” Noe said. “It does; it just gives that appearance.”
Scott Benkie, lawyer for the county commissioners and council, said he understands council members’ concerns and agrees there should be a record of a vote, but stressed he doesn’t think Jessup would sign a contract without the other two commissioners knowing.
“I’m a little disturbed that the inference is that the president of the BOC (board of commissioners) is acting improperly, because we know as a board and I as the lawyer – we don’t do things that way,” he said. “…If there’s been an oversight, that might be one thing, but I can tell you there’s absolutely no merit in some purposeful misconduct or trying to circumvent, and that’s what the inference is right now and I think you’ve got to be very careful when you start treading like that.”
Jessup said he feels Butrum’s search for the record is part of an attempt to disparage him.
“We’ll make sure that somebody shows it, because I’m tired of you inferring that I do things wrong, because I don’t,” he told her at the meeting. “I know that you don’t like me, and that’s fine. I don’t really like you either.”
The council voted 4-3 in favor of the bond ordinance upon its introduction, but it would require another majority vote in favor next month to pass. Council members Bill Bolander, Kent Fisk, Robin Lowder and Jim Shelby voted in favor during the first reading while Butrum, Jeannine Gray and Noe voted against.
Council members indicated they want to use the time before the next vote next month to determine whether a record of the commissioners’ vote on BW Construction’s contract can be found, or if not, prompt the county commissioners to carry out that vote.
Bolander said time is of the essence, noting the rapidly changing lending environment.
“We don’t want to run our interest rate up,” he said.