No-bid hiring stirs patronage concerns
By Bobby Kerlik
Published: Tuesday, November 27, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
A former Allegheny County Public Works director will help lead a $156,000 no-bid project to study the operations of the department he used to head, a setup some council members questioned.
The agreement with Moon-based engineering firm Michael Baker Corp. runs from Nov. 1 through March 31 and includes a department-wide assessment and comprehensive review of organizational documents. The company assigned two key people to work on the project, including Tom Donatelli, assistant vice president for construction services, said Amie Downs, spokeswoman for Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
Donatelli headed Public Works from October 1997 until he retired in March 2008, county records show. Donatelli referred comment to Downs.
Fitzgerald last month fired Donatelli's successor, Joe Olczak.
County Manager William McKain said the county need not seek bids on such a contract because it's classified as a professional services contract. McKain, who signed the contract the day after Olczak's ouster on Oct. 31, said Michael Baker Corp. got the work because of the company's good reputation and ability to deliver services effectively, not because of Donatelli's connections.
“We hired Baker because of Tom Donatelli. He's an expert in the field and was very well-respected,” Fitzgerald said. “He did a good job as Public Works director, and I had a lot of confidence in him when I was on council. I reached out to him on several issues.”
County Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh expressed concern about the deal.
“If they want an outside body, then why not get a truly outside person?” said Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon. “Are some of the people he's judging the people he put in place during his tenure?”
Fitzgerald said Donatelli isn't critiquing his own policies.
“He's been gone four years. It's about giving advice to my administration and a new county manager. He was the best choice, so rather than delay things, we wanted to get things moving,” Fitzgerald said. “Knowing me shouldn't be a disqualifier.”
Michael Baker Corp. conducted several projects for the county in the past 10 years totaling about $9.5 million, according to the controller's office.
“We have contracts with the airport authority, Department of Economic Development, Public Works and the county manager's office,” Michael Baker spokesman David Higie said.
Donatelli has been active with the county in the months since Fitzgerald took office in January. He headed a committee that in October recommended renaming the 16th Street Bridge in honor of historian David McCullough. In March, Fitzgerald named Donatelli and 23 others to a “vision team” that will study concerns involving the county's infrastructure.
Councilman Matt Drozd, R-Ross, said that Michael Baker Corp. has a good reputation, but the contract should have been put out for bid.
“Even if it can be no-bid, I think it should be bid, something that size,” Drozd said.
University of Pittsburgh public administration and policy expert George Dougherty said such consulting contracts are not unusual.
“The county has to balance the costs of going through the bid process versus getting someone in there quickly,” Dougherty said. “On one hand, you have a former Public Works director who works for Michael Baker Corp. That may not look good on paper because of perceived favoritism, but on the other hand, you wouldn't want someone to come in who knows nothing about how the county is run.”
Downs said the Public Works study will examine the department's overall efficiency and service delivery, and it will be measured against industry standards.
Recent problems in the department surfaced when McKain discovered the county missed out on more than $1 million in state reimbursements because it began two projects in 2009 and 2010 before PennDOT gave final approval.
On Monday, the county posted on its website an opening for Public Works director at a salary of more than $98,000, and for a deputy director whose salary wasn't specified.
Public Works, which had a $31 million 2012 budget, maintains 820 miles of road, more than 520 bridges and 12,000 acres of parks and related facilities. The department maintains building infrastructure, the county's vehicle fleet and heavy equipment.
Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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