Napanee Council and staff dispute engineering contract extension

Jeff Cuthill, Director of Capital Projects in Infrastructure Services for the Town of Greater Napanee, presents his recommendation that Jewell Engineering be retained for five more years, despite a council resolution on the books asking that the contract go out for proposals. Screen captured image.

A major contract seemed to get awarded on the fly at the regular meeting of the Greater Napanee Town Council on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023, when it was decided — after a great deal of confusion and some backtracking — to extend the Town’s general engineering contract with Jewell Engineering.

To begin with, Jeff Cuthill, Director of Capital Projects in Infrastructure Services, presented his Infrastructure Services – Extension of Engineering Services Report, which contained the recommendation that Council award a five-year extension of engineering services to Jewell Engineering, as stated in their current contract from 2018. This would in effect give Jewell a 10-year contract ending on April 30, 2028.

Cuthill noted that this contract “was brought back to Council in April of last year” and that staff did a “fulsome review of the agreement” before bringing this recommendation to Council.

He then noted that he had consulted with the County of Lennox and Addington, “who in December of 2022 had put a request out for… professional engineering and consulting services.” He “believed” the County had three proponents and, upon review, the County “deemed that Jewell was professionally and financially the best choice for the County to move forward with.”

“I believe it was in excess of a 15 per cent reduction in fees compared to the average of the other bidders,” Cuthill stated, noting that joint projects were coming up with the County and that using the same consultant on those projects would be most efficient.

However, Cuthill’s remarks clearly came as a surprise to Councillor Dave Pinnell, who was quick to point out that in April 2023 staff had been directed to do a Request for Proposal (RFP), not just a review. An RFP is a document issued by the Town which invites proponents (potential contractors) to submit a proposal in the hopes that they can satisfy the Town’s needs cost-effectively. Pinnell pointed out that Resolution 243/23 from the April 25, 2023 meeting of council expressly directed staff to issue an RFP.

Resolution 243/23 from that meeting (which was moved by Councillor Bob Norrie, seconded by Councillor Angela Hicks) reads, “That Council receive for information CAO-Renewal of General Engineering Services Contract report; And further that, Council approve the extension of the current General Engineering Services Contract for a period of one year and further that Council direct staff to issue an RFP (request for proposal) for general engineering services in 2023 as part of a broad review of all service contracts during this term of Council. CARRIED.”

Pinnell said in a frustrated tone, “You’re saying that your understanding was that you [should] just do a review of it, and then you just piggybacked off what the County did — correct?” 

Cuthill admitted that was correct, and said, “The understanding that staff had at the time was to consult with the County and other lower tiers and to see that this was the best avenue to move forward with a fulsome review of it… We did conduct a review of the RFP and, after consulting with the staff [who] are in place now, it was [decided] to come back with what we believed could be the best move moving forward.”

He qualified this by saying, “A great deal of work goes into staff time and the consultants’ time to bid these. And when we had the information that was in front of us, we believed that this… could save a great deal of time.”

Pinnell seemed exasperated, continuing, “You can only imagine… what my thoughts were when I saw this recommendation come through and looked at 243/23. I was expecting a Request for Proposal sometime through this year before we were going to extend [the contract with Jewell]. I was going to be looking for numbers, and… I would have liked to see this done.”

Pinnell then asked if there would still be time to put out an RFP and receive applications. Deputy Treasurer Nathan Murphy interjected to respond that a tender could likely go out in time. Murphy attempted to clarify the matter by saying, “Just to add some context… to Councillor Pinnell’s point: I do realize this was a resolution on the books. At the time that this got brought forward, I think there [were] some different driving forces behind that. It’s not something that staff completely forgot about. I would just say that priorities maybe shifted to some degree… but I don’t think it was, you know, a willingness to just, you know, not follow resolution — but more so it maybe fell down the totem pole a little bit at the time.”

In April 2023 meetings, this contract was discussed within the context of the former Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) John Pinsent’s report, which specifically recommended extending the General Engineering Services Contract for one year so that the Town could review its Engineering contract and issue an RFP as part of a broad review of all service contracts during this term of Council.

Councillor Michael Schenk then put Michael Nobes, General Manager of Growth and Expansion, on the spot, suggesting that because Nobes is an engineer, he would like to hear his opinion.

“My question,” Schenk said, “is to our engineer, Mike. Mike, when you go through this proposal for the 2024 extension and rate adjustment request… because you signed off on it… When you look through this and you do it being an engineer — and with being the County and dual engineering is doing business with a lot of other municipalities within the county itself — do you feel that there’s any justification to go for an RFP or do you think we’re getting the best thing for the buck right now? That’s what I’d like to know.” 

Nobes was diplomatic in his response, saying, “I think there’s good value for money with the proponent, and I think there’s some level of consideration that could be had towards the County’s result… Although numbers that we might get in an RFP response wouldn’t be exactly the same. I think they would be shifting relative to one another if it were similar proponents putting bids forward. So, I think there’s good value for the money with… Jewell Engineering.”

Schenk then asked Nobes, “Are you happy with the services that they’ve been providing?” 

Nobes responded, ”From a development review standpoint, I don’t have any concern with their services. I can’t speak for capital or public works that Mr. Cuthill is dealing with on a more routine basis, [but]… I don’t have a concern with the quality of review work that we’re receiving.”

Schenk noted that he remembered “because it was quite a heated discussion” that he had made the original motion seeking the RFP in April 2023, but “businesses change. Times change. Talking to [Nobes], listening to what [Cuthill] said and knowing the amount of work that we’re doing… What would be the better benefit?… If there isn’t substantial savings… I’m kind of leaning to what the report says.”

Mayor Terry Richardson interjected, “I guess we won’t know unless we go to an RFP to see if we get a better deal. That’s, I guess, the chicken and the egg, right?” 

Clerk Jessica Walters noted that this would indeed be a reconsideration of the motion passed in April and that any member can make a motion to reconsider a previous motion; however, such a motion would require a two-thirds majority to pass. If the motion to reconsider passed, then the new motion could be put on the floor. If it did not pass, then Council’s options would be to reaffirm the direction to extend an RFP before April 30. A possible alternative option would be to do one more one-year extension, which would still meet the spirit and intent of reviewing this contract within this term of Council. 

Councillor Angela Hicks asked what the per cent increase was for the provided 2024 hourly rate schedule, and “how much was the increase from the first five years, which was 2018 to 2023?”

Cuthill had no answer for the newer numbers, saying, “I don’t have a per cent increase. I haven’t worked it out. I would mention that since 2018, they have held the rate as at the 2018 rates.” He also noted that the 2024 rates would be subject to annual review and could increase “if necessary.”

PIinnell, who seemed to be the only councillor to acknowledge that staff had disobeyed a direction from Council, eventually made a motion to “uphold [Resolution] 243/23 and that we go for a request for proposal,” but no one would second the motion.

Schenk then put the motion to reconsider 243/23 on the floor, saying he was only bringing it because it was necessary “for us to legally discuss this.” It was seconded by Councillor Bill Martin.

Pinnell then clarified, “The reason why I made the motion to uphold 243/23 is because we are still in the fiscal 2023 year; my question was satisfied that there is still time to do [an RFP]… There was a will back in April to do this…There’s still time in ’23 to have this done.”

He also said he felt that the resolution directing staff to look for proposals should have been followed through on.

Things then became further confused because Councillors Hicks and Schenk pointed out that a letter from Jewell Engineering stated that their extension of service was set to expire on December 31, 2023 and not on April 30, 2024, as was previously understood from Cuthill’s report.

Murphy confirmed that “the original staff report has an extension for a year from April 30th onward… so there are conflicting dates now at this point.”

At this point Schenk became confused, asking if his motion had been seconded. It had.

Hicks asked that the motion be read again. It was.

The motion passed with only Pinnell opposed.

“Is this the end or no?” a bewildered Mayor Richardson asked. Then he answered his own question: “No, now we’ve got to continue… The floor is now open if we’re going to entertain a motion moving forward, and it’s wide open.”

Richardson then asked for a 10-minute break to allow Cuthill and team to find out how long the County’s contract with Jewell was extended, because “I think we’re getting really deep into the weeds.” 

After the break, Cuthill returned, saying the County contract was for three years beginning on January 1, 2023, with the County able to extend for an additional three years.

Cuthill then changed his recommendation to Council on the spot, saying, “I think with the synergies that we have found in our partnerships with the County… and in all lower tiers, I would like to amend the staff recommendation to align with the terms of the County’s contract. So we could, at that time, explore any efficiencies that we may get utilizing the same firm.” He did not explain why that exploration had not already been done to give support to his original recommendation.

“So, if I’m hearing this,” Richardson said, “we need a friendly amendment to the motion with respect to agreeing to a contract with Jewell Engineering, from January 1st, 2024 through to December 31st, 2025 — because [the County is] already a year ahead of us — with an option to go beyond that [for] three years, which is the County’s agreement. Are we all on the same page? Maybe?” This motion was moved by Schenk and seconded by Norrie, and the “friendly amendment” passed.

The mayor then asked the clerk to read the motion in full: “Probably best if you repeat it to us so we’re sure that we’re all on the same page.”

The motion read “that Council receive for information the Infrastructure Services – Extension of Engineering Services Report, and further, that Council agree to an extension of engineering services with Jewell Engineering to align with the dates of the County of Lennox and Addington agreement, the term from January 1, 2023, ending December 31, 2025, with an option for one additional extension term.”

Schenk asked for a recorded vote. The motion carried with only Pinnell voting against it.

As always, you can read full Council meeting agendas on Napanee’s civic web online, and watch meetings live or recorded on the town’s YouTube channel.

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