Sparks fly over construction contract

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HANCOCK COUNTY – After determining a vote never occurred on an agreement with a construction company, officials’ opposing views over their intentions in a meeting nearly a year ago are prompting them to head in a different direction.

The decision came earlier this week after heated exchanges among the Hancock County Commissioners.

It stemmed from last week when the Hancock County Council was slated to vote on a $5,575,000 general obligation bond for funding improvement projects at several county government buildings. John Jessup, president of the county commissioners, signed an agreement with Indianapolis-based BW Construction filed Nov. 2, 2021 for the company to serve as a construction manager for that work. But county council member Keely Butrum pointed out last week that no record of a vote among the commissioners authorizing Jessup to sign the agreement could be found.

At the commissioners meeting earlier this week, Jessup, the other two commissioners and the county attorney acknowledged a vote never occurred on the agreement with BW Construction after reviewing meeting minutes as well as audio and video recordings of meetings.

Scott Benkie, the county attorney, recalled that at the Oct. 5, 2021 commissioners meeting, Dustin Frye of BW Construction brought a proposal and the commissioners asked him to submit a contract, which Frye did before engaging in negotiations with the lawyer.

Scott Benkie

Benkie went on to recall that at the Oct. 19, 2021 commissioners meeting, the board approved a contract with Indianapolis-based DLZ for architectural services for the county government building projects.

On an audio recording of the Nov. 2, 2021 commissioners meeting, Frye can be heard addressing the board about BW Construction serving as construction manager for the building projects. At one point Jessup can be heard asking if he has approval to sign an agreement. When it comes time for a motion, however, commissioner Marc Huber can be heard making one to approve the DLZ agreement for architectural services.

Benkie noted that a video recording of the meeting does not exist, but that he believes Frye presented BW Construction’s agreement and that’s what Huber meant to make a motion on.

“I’m a bit distraught about it because I feel like I wish I had caught it myself that day,” Benkie said at the commissioners meeting this week. “I wish we all had. … I’m not going to be able to catch everything, none of us are. We’re going to have some mistakes. It’s the nature of all the paper that goes through. We’re very vigilant, we try to avoid it, but it’s going to happen.”

Benkie added that potentially further complicating the matter is the Indiana State Board of Accounts’ ongoing investigation into Jessup’s professional relationship with BW Construction. Jessup disclosed with the state in July that the company contracts him as a construction superintendent through his wife’s business, but he maintains he does not work as a superintendent on projects between BW Construction and Hancock County government. The commissioners decided to request the investigation last month before considering a proposal from a team that includes BW Construction regarding infrastructure in Buck Creek Township.

Huber agreed that his intention last November was to move to authorize BW Construction’s agreement, calling it “an honest mistake,” adding he thought that was the other commissioners’ intentions as well. He said he was motivated to hire the company because of its quality work on another county project — the new jail east of Greenfield. Huber also pointed to the preliminary work the company has done on the government building improvement projects so far and updates representatives of the firm have given to commissioners on those projects throughout the past year.

“My stance is I know it was my intent,” Huber said. “I felt like it was the entire board’s intent to hire BW as our rep.”

Marc Huber

But county commissioner Bill Spalding disagreed.

“Not at that vote, no I didn’t,” Spalding said. “I voted for DLZ. Didn’t vote for BW. They’re not in the minutes; it’s not in the minutes as that. My intent then was to vote along with what was said, and DLZ was what was brought up in that meeting, so that was my intent for the day.”

Bill Spalding

Jessup asked – regardless of the motion fumble – if it was ultimately Spalding’s intent for BW Construction to be the construction manager for the building improvements.

“Not right now,” Spalding responded. “I haven’t voted, I haven’t seen the contract.”

The answer prompted another question from Jessup.

“So, you’re questioning my integrity and you’re doubling down on the allegation that I entered into a contract unilaterally outside of this board?” Jessup asked.

Spalding replied by asking why the signed agreement with BW Construction was never uploaded to a state transparency website like other contracts are, a question Jessup said he shared before noting that responsibility doesn’t fall on the commissioners.

“You question my integrity, sir, and I now question yours,” Jessup told Spalding.

Huber said he took offense to Spalding’s recollection of events last November as well.

Debra Carnes, Hancock County auditor, told the Daily Reporter that her office also determined that a vote over BW Construction’s contract never occurred after reviewing minutes, recordings, agendas and other records. The auditor’s office started looking for a record of the vote earlier this month after Butrum requested it, Carnes continued, adding the BW Construction agreement Jessup signed was found in a contract folder. Without a vote backing it, however, nothing compelled the auditor’s office to post it online.

“There would’ve been no reason to upload it if there wasn’t a motion to support it,” Carnes said.

Jessup also said at the recent commissioners meeting that he wouldn’t be participating in any votes regarding BW Construction, something Spalding said was long overdue.

“I think, knowing what I know now, that probably should’ve been the get-go from when I even started as a commissioner, and probably before,” Spalding said.

Despite the confusion over the contract, the commissioners noted that the government building improvements have been discussed and needed for close to a decade. They also expressed a desire to avoid further delays as much as possible, pointing to inflation’s worsening toll on the economy and the need to act in the best interest of taxpayers.

Benkie said in order to continue with BW Construction as construction manager, the commissioners would need to reach a consensus that that was their intention last November despite the motion over DLZ’s architecture agreement.

Spalding, however, moved to contact DLZ to see if it could provide construction management for the projects, and if it can’t, issue another request for proposals.

Jessup abstained from the vote while Huber joined Spalding in favor, albeit reluctantly.

“I just want to keep it moving forward,” Huber said. “I don’t necessarily agree with it. I feel like we had somebody hired and they were more than qualified to do the job and to keep things moving. If that’s what we need to do to get consensus, then let’s get on with it because this is just really sad.”

In the meeting, Jessup used profanity to describe the outcome, also calling it “pathetic,” “disingenuous” and “political.”

Frye attended the meeting but did not speak, and declined to comment afterward.

Benkie said BW Construction would likely be entitled to money from the county for work it’s done so far concerning the projects despite the now-determined lack of a valid agreement. The company has yet to submit an invoice to the county for that work, however.

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