Natural History Building renovations delayed over conflict of interest

After the original contract was revoked because of a conflict of interest, University officials now seek a new architecture firm to take on the renovations to the 120-year-old Natural History Building.

University spokesman Tom Hardy said the request for proposals was reposted on the state’s higher education procurement bulletin last Wednesday. The deadline for submitting proposals is 4 p.m. Sept. 12.

The University’s original contract with local architecture firm BLDD Architects was awarded in December 2010 for approximately $370,000 for “conceptualization.” About a year later, another $4.3 million was given to the firm to continue work.

However, questions were raised about the role of Jill Maxey, former associate director of planning, in the decision-making process since Maxey’s husband, Bruce Maxey, is a partial owner of BLDD. By law, when faced with ethical concerns, the University is obligated to alert Ben Bagby, state procurement officer for higher education, who brings it to the attention of the Procurement Policy Board. The procurement board, however, was unaware of any conflict of interest until last spring.

Will Blount, assistant director of the board, said this type of a relationship is a violation of section 50-35 of the procurement code. It states that the employment of a spouse, including contractual employment and employment for services, is defined as a conflict.

Blount said the University tried to put a “firewall” around Jill Maxey, meaning that she was meant to stay out of the loop. However, in a public hearing held by the chief procurement officer in May, it was noted that “the firewall failed a couple of times” when it was discovered that Maxey was communicating about the contract, Blount said.

“I think that the University feels that it followed the process,” Hardy said. “There was a disclosure of the conflict. (Bagby) had reviewed the University’s processing of this contract and thought the University had acted properly.”

Hardy said the board of trustees received recommendations from the procurement board on two separate occasions to void the contract with BLDD and start over. At their July meeting, trustees decided to follow those recommendations. Jill Maxey has since been reassigned as a Facilities and Services staff member, Hardy said.

According to the minutes of the July procurement board meeting, board member Ed Bedore criticized the University’s legal council, saying he hopes the University does a better job with their law students than the attorneys in their office. However, Bagby said he thinks that was a matter of opinion.

“I think the University legal council is pretty competent in what they do, but there can be differences of opinion as to how things should best be done,” Bagby said.

As a result, Bagby said he is drafting a conflict-of-interest policy that will clarify what the procurement office needs to do in similar situations in the future. Although he said there may be some exceptions, they would be rare and in the best interest of the state.

“I think in these circumstances, you have to have a policy that is strong and clear, but is also reasonable,” Bagby said. “That is what I’m trying to develop.”

The new request for proposals, along with an attached conceptualization report, states that the University is seeking a “professional services consultant” with expertise in architecture, engineering, history and structure for the renovation. Hardy said a five-person committee from the University will review the submitted proposals after the deadline passes and select a firm to take on the renovation project.

The budget for renovations was originally $70 million, but with each month that passes, the cost of the project escalates approximately $91,000, Hardy said.

He said the official cost will remain unknown until the bids are sent in.

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