Lawrence City Commission approves alternatives to traditional bidding process

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Lawrence City Commission approved an ordinance that allows the city to use methods that deviate from the sealed-bid procedure for future construction projects, but with the caveat that detailed procedures be created and approved.

At the commission’s Tuesday meeting, City Manager Tom Markus pointed to the fact that the city has used alternative construction methods before, and explicitly authorizing the city to do so is more transparent. He also told commissioners that the current system is not a perfect system by any stretch of the imagination.

“Having years of experience in (design-bid-build), I will tell you that it has other issues,” Markus said. “One being the over-reliance on the fact that the lowest bid always gets the project. It’s like, turn off the brain at that point — we got our project contractor.”

The ordinance authorizes the city to use other options than design-bid-build for construction projects, such as the design-build method, where a designer and contractor team is selected at the beginning of the process based on qualifications and a price is set instead of opening the project for bids. One concern that has been expressed is that the prices of some city projects have been significantly overestimated in the past, but city staff told the commission that the city could still receive bids on the major subcontracted portions of work.

The commission passed the ordinance 4-1, with Commissioner Leslie Soden dissenting, but with a caveat. Commissioner Jennifer Ananda asked that the language in the charter ordinance be changed to require procedures for alternative construction methods. She said those procedures need to be clear.

Specifically, Ananda asked that a part of the ordinance stating “the City Manager may adopt procedures for selecting the delivery method and for the conduct of the alternative project delivery process” be changed to “shall” instead of “may.” Other commissioners agreed, and also agreed that those procedures should come before the commission for review. Soden said she would not be comfortable with adopting alternative construction methods until she actually sees the procedures.

Ananda also noted that in order to use alternative methods, the commission will have to decide that it’s in the public’s best interest.

“I don’t know that I know anyone who has lived their life on the basis of the lowest cost only,” Ananda said. “That’s not the only factor that should always be taken into consideration.”

Before the decision was made, the city invited several people with experience in alternative construction methods to speak to the commission, including Brian Lines, an assistant professor in the University of Kansas’ civil, environmental and architectural engineering department. Lines said alternative methods are “a growing national trend and very common.” However, Lines said data shows there is actually no distinct difference in outcomes based on what project delivery system is used.

“The only difference is in how each of those delivery systems is executed,” Lines said. “To use an analogy, delivery systems are a tool in your toolbox, and how effectively you use the tool is what’s going to determine success or lack thereof.”

Lines said there are three drivers of success in such projects: partnering with the best design and construction teams; leveraging the expertise of those individuals in the project’s execution; and holding that team accountable.

Mayor Stuart Boley, Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen and Commissioner Matthew Herbert all agreed that creating an ordinance that explicitly authorizes the city to use alternate methods is a way to expand the tools available. Larsen said having other options is especially important for complicated projects, and that she is comfortable moving forward but wants to take a hard look at the procedures.

“I believe we should expand that toolbox as much as we can, but we need to make sure it’s done correctly,” Larsen said. “And the idea that those procedures are going to come back is extremely important.”