In Columbus, big community projects usually have dozens of fingerprints on them.
And the process of examining important projects — hashing out options, strategies, possibilities and pitfalls — usually occurs in public.
That is what happened with the Mill Race amphitheater and Crump Theatre redevelopment projects. A broad swath of the community — experts, residents and stakeholders — collaborated and weighed in. More than a dozen public meetings were conducted to get input and educate the public about how the Crump and amphitheater projects were progressing.
But the most recent developments in one of the largest projects the city has undertaken in the past four years — the sale and development of 740 acres owned by the city at the former Walesboro airport — have not followed a similar approach.
This year, as the city took major steps on the project, there was no stakeholder committee formed to shape a vision for the city’s next industrial park.
Instead, Mayor Kristen Brown asked the five Columbus Aviation Board members early in the year to put on their community hats and agree to sell the property to a developer, guided by Columbus Redevelopment Commission consultant Doug Pacheco.
Brown did not consult with the Columbus City Council for ideas on the development. Nor did she actively work with the Columbus Economic Development Board, which already was marketing the site to prospective tenants based on a 2012 architect and engineering study that provided a strategy for development.
The months-long process triggered by Brown also deviated from common city practices, including the following examples:
An offer to purchase the Walesboro property in response to a Request for Proposals was opened by aviation board president Caleb Tennis in private at the airport in mid-June, about two weeks before the deadline for all proposals to be submitted. The city’s common practice calls for proposals to remain sealed until the end of the submission period and to be opened all at once, at a time and place designated in the Request for Proposals document, city attorney Jeff Logston said.
Indiana laws about disposal of property through a Request for Proposals do allow proposals to be opened as they are submitted in an open bidding process and allow respondents to resubmit proposals based on another company’s offers. But the aviation board had decided for the Walesboro project to open all responses at the same time, Logston said. Its Request for Proposals did not specify a date, time or place for the opening, however.
A $600,000 earnest check submitted by The Hageman Group, Indianapolis, in its response to the Request for Proposals was kept in a safe at Columbus Municipal Airport rather than being forwarded to the city clerk-treasurer’s office. Clerk-Treasurer Luann Welmer did not know the check existed until it was mentioned at a Sept. 17 joint meeting of the aviation board and Columbus Redevelopment Commission, more than two months after it was sent to the airport.
No public notices were given for open or closed meetings conducted by two members of the aviation board and two members of the redevelopment commission as they reviewed the project. Indiana’s Open Door Law requires the public to be notified about meetings of committees that are appointed by a board or its president. However, Logston said that none of the public officials were serving as a committee but instead had just been asked if they were available to attend meetings about the project.
The Walesboro acreage is considered crucial to future economic development for Columbus, as it is the city’s largest tract of land available for industrial expansion.
It’s unclear why the mayor, who leaves office Dec. 31, initially decided on the approach to sell the entire Walesboro property to one developer through a Request for Proposals. Then in September, the city abruptly changed course, opting to hire an engineering firm as a consultant to study the cost and return on investment in making the land shovel-ready for industrial prospects.
It’s also unclear why Brown, after deciding to shift strategies on Walesboro, did not collaborate with the local economic development board, a nonprofit entity formed in 1976 to promote Columbus as an attractive site for new development and to assist local companies with expansion plans.
City officials wrote a Request for Proposals to sell the Walesboro property with input from the aviation board and Logston, with Pacheco put in charge of the project.
Brown turned down repeated requests for an in-depth interview about her strategy in developing the property.
Questions about Walesboro
What sparked questions about how the Walesboro project has been handled were actions taken leading up to and during a Sept. 17 joint public meeting of the aviation board and redevelopment commission. That’s when the aviation board first mentioned a $6 million offer from the Hageman Group to buy the property. The Hageman proposal was rejected during that meeting before it was ever presented in public.Tennis later explained that aviation board members reached a consensus by the end of June, through emails and phone conversations, that the company’s offer was too low.The Sept. 17 meeting also was the first time the public and one member of the redevelopment commission learned the city was taking a different approach to Walesboro. That change was the hiring of HWC Engineering of Indianapolis as a consultant to provide economic development, planning and engineering services for the Walesboro property — for which HWC would be paid up to $135,000 for its services.
Frank Jerome, the redevelopment commission’s vice president and a city council member, said he knew nothing about the new approach for Walesboro and did not know anything about the engineering firm or how the engineering contract was coming before the commission.
With little discussion, Brown, who chairs the redevelopment commission, and members Dave Wright and Russ Poling voted to use redevelopment money to pay for the HWC Engineering contract, with Jerome voting no.
During public comment, city council member Frank Miller questioned how the city could conduct interviews with an engineering company in private while the Hageman Group’s proposal still was pending before the aviation board.
“Why was this not open?” Miller asked.
The councilman also asked about how the aviation board and redevelopment commission came to the conclusion to reject the Hageman Group and hire HWC for what Miller described as “a huge project.”
Chiding both boards, Miller said: “I don’t care for doing business this way.”
Columbus has a history of getting a broad section of the community involved in big projects. Those projects might be different in nature — deciding the future of a historic theater or renovating an architecturally significant public amphitheater — but the process of seeking a variety of voices and input has been a common approach.Former city consultant Jayne Farber said forming the stakeholder committees for the Crump and amphitheater projects was the most prudent way to get diverse opinion.
Drawing on her business background in the financial services industry, she said having a public stakeholder committee is just good business practice.
“You need to have a variety of opinions when you are working with a community asset,” she said.
In projects involving renovation and future uses of the Crump and Mill Race Amphitheater, a stakeholder committee appointed by Farber spearheaded the process. In each project, six or seven public meetings were conducted where more input was sought and questions could be answered.
In the most recent developments in the Walesboro project, neither the mayor nor Pacheco decided to put together a stakeholder group to work on the project. Instead, two aviation board and two redevelopment commission members — including Brown — gave input to Pacheco in the decision-making process.
On July 30, Tennis and aviation board vice president Dennis Tibbetts met privately with city council members Jim Lienhoop, Frank Miller and Tim Shuffett to update them on the Walesboro project. Tennis and Tibbetts told the councilmen that the Hageman proposal to buy the property likely would not be accepted and that an alternative proposal — without providing details — would be presented.
Tennis said he was asked by Brown to keep Lienhoop, as mayor-elect, and the councilman up to date on progress on Walesboro. That meeting came nearly two months after the city sought offers to buy the property and after the unspecified alternative proposal was being developed.
Tennis publicly mentioned that an alternative proposal was in the works for the Walesboro property during a Sept. 8 aviation board meeting, but no details were given, and the item was tabled at the request of the mayor.
Business plans developed
Instead of setting up a Walesboro stakeholder committee before the decision-making started, as was used in the Crump and amphitheater projects, HWC Engineering is now meeting on the city’s behalf with stakeholders privately to gain information for its consulting report. HWC is due to report back to the city at the beginning of December.The stakeholder meetings include sessions with manufacturers Cummins and Faurecia, which use the former airport’s runways to test diesel engines and emission-control technologies. HWC also was planning to meet with Jason Hester, executive director of the economic development board.
Hester said his board has been using a 2012 engineering study on the Walesboro property as a blueprint for future development. That study recommended the entire industrial park be built around the test track idea, to attract companies that couldn’t find a combination of available-to-develop land and a test track anywhere else.
The board’s conversations with Brown about Walesboro began in 2012 and continued into the next year, Hester said. But multiple conversations with Brown — both directly and in group settings — early in her term tapered off, he said.
At some point in 2013, Brown indicated that a business plan for Walesboro would be useful, but she was unwilling to have the city conduct or hire the work to be done, Hester said. So the economic development board asked IUPUC’s business department if the university’s MBA program would be willing to take on the task, he said.
In spring 2014, a group of MBA students prepared four separate business plans that were presented to the aviation board and the city administration, although the economic development board essentially got no feedback on those plans, Hester said.
The economic development board has continued to support the city’s efforts to create shovel-ready land for industrial prospects and has continued to support the 2012 study recommendation that a test track be part of the development, Hester said.
Hester said he received an unexpected email from the mayor Nov. 11, 2014, followed by more correspondence the following day.
“The email exchange of the 11th and 12th sheds some light into the disconnect that had come to exist between our organization and the mayor’s office,” Hester wrote in a reply to questions from The Republic.
The emails contain an invitation from the mayor for the economic development board to present a Walesboro proposal to the redevelopment board. Hester replied that the economic development board hoped the mayor would issue a Request for Proposals on the property and gave a synopsis of what the economic development board had done so far, including the 2012 study.
“In our assessment, this was far from being an authentic call for assistance, especially since the plan had already been submitted in February of 2012,” Hester wrote. “However, as we had done from day one, we again offered our assistance and continued to express our willingness to work with the mayor’s office.”
The mayor told Hester in the email exchange that no private developer believed enough in the market for Columbus’ industrial space, or it would have happened by now without public funds. She then told Hester the city would stay the course looking for a developer with industrial park experience and a partnership model that would guarantee success.
Hester replied that a private development group already was prepared to respond to a Request for Proposals, so staying the course in looking for a developer was a confusing statement. He offered to have the board look at multiple developers if that is what the mayor wished. Hester again asked for the city to issue the Request for Proposals and then evaluate the responses to craft a unique solution for Columbus.
That’s not how things played out, however.
Another aspect of the Walesboro project that differed from past practices was how the formal Request for Proposals were handled.After Brown told aviation board members the city needed to sell the property for economic development, the Request for Proposals was written and responses were due June 26.
Tennis opened the Hageman Group’s response at an office at the airport in mid-June, before the deadline. He then sent copies of the Hageman Group’s response, which turned out to be the only one received, to aviation board members privately instead of announcing the response in public.
Brown said Tennis made a mistake when he opened the Request for Proposals at the airport on his own, but she declined to comment further.
Logston said that, although it has been the city’s practice under the Brown administration to hold all Request for Proposals in sealed envelopes and open them in public meetings, Indiana law about the disposal of public property allows the process to be done in other ways.
The opening does not need to be in a public board meeting, Logston said. When the notice is given of the date, time and place that the proposals are being opened, there does not need to be a separate meeting notice, he said. And it is not required that a certain individual or board open the proposals, he said.
“Anyone could open the Request for Proposals at the designated time and location as long as no one is prohibited from attending,” he said. “It does not mean it has to be in a public meeting.”
Also, Indiana statutes dealing with an aviation board disposing of property require the Request for Proposals to be legally advertised with the date, time and place of opening set. In Walesboro’s case, the release date was April 27 and the due date was June 26.
State law does allow the airport board to open proposals as they arrive and to continue to take new or counterproposals through the process, Logston said. As a result, the Request for Proposals turns into somewhat of an auction but also opens up the possibility of perceived influence in the process, he said.
In the Walesboro Request for Proposals, aviation board members decided to use the city’s standard process of opening the sealed responses all at once. Logston said he doesn’t recall how the aviation board decided to go with the standard process but does recall aviation board members were uncomfortable with an ongoing bidding process.
Brown said processes used in studying the Crump and amphitheater were not comparable to the Walesboro project, as Walesboro involved selling property.
In contrast, responses for the Request for Proposals for the Crump and amphitheater projects were stamped on arrival and opened by Farber and others after the response deadline passed. The Crump and amphitheater responses were presented to the public in open meetings. Presentations also were made in public sessions of the city council and redevelopment commissions.
How others do it
Other city and state entities contacted by The Republic said they have strict procedures for handling Request for Proposals, which can differ depending on the purpose.For example, a city purchasing supplies in bulk or a new garbage truck would ask for sealed proposals to be submitted by a certain date, which are then opened in public. In Columbus, those usually are opened in a public Board of Works meeting and then turned over to a city department head who evaluates the responses and returns to the next public board meeting with a recommendation. The board then votes in public to accept or reject that recommendation.
In the case of selling property through a Request for Proposals, state law allows cities to have a more open bidding process, in which responses can be opened as they arrive and be made public, allowing others to counteroffer in a sort of public auction process. However, state law doesn’t require that, and a city may choose to keep the responses sealed until opening them in public and then having them scored or evaluated and then voting in a public meeting on the recommendation.
The Indiana Department of Transportation uses Request for Proposals for engineering contracts and a variety of other professional services, according to Will Wingfield, INDOT spokesman.
Those responding to an INDOT Request for Proposals do so electronically, so that each proposal is labeled by time and date, and documents are not opened until the proposal period ends, Wingfield said. The Request for Proposals and construction contract bids are legally advertised; but since everything is submitted electronically, the notification is also electronic, Wingfield said.
After the proposals are opened, they are evaluated using a scoring system that is explained in the Request for Proposals so that no one person can have influence over the selection process, Wingfield said. The scores are posted electronically for those who have submitted proposals to see the results of the evaluation, he said. INDOT contracts with a service to allow the scoring to be placed on the website, he added.
Following this sort of standard practice is important, said Jeff Clanton, INDOT consultant contracting manager.
“Having a defined practice makes sure what you are doing is transparent and fair,” Clanton said. “We’re just setting a level playing field.”
The city of South Bend has a Web page with all its pending Request for Proposals listed, according to Debrah Jennings, city property manager. She said all Request for Proposals are kept date-stamped and sealed before being opened in a public meeting where public notice has been given.
If any documents arrive in an open envelope, they are rejected, she said.
The process is designed to give transparency to the process by handling each response the same way, she said.
“It’s to show we aren’t doing anything in secret,” she said.
Recently, Columbus followed a procedure similar to South Bend’s to find a new health care insurance administrator. The city wrote a Request for Proposals for the services, advertised the request, reached out to firms that might be interested, set a deadline and then opened the proposals in a public meeting. The city’s insurance committee was asked to provide a recommendation about the responses and met in public session at City Hall to consider them.
Handling the check
Another issue that arose involved the $600,000 earnest money check that was sent to the airport by The Hageman Group as part of its purchase offer for the Walesboro property.During the Sept. 17 joint meeting of the aviation board and redevelopment commission, city council member Miller questioned why the city would hold an earnest check sent with a response to a Request for Proposals at the airport for months, even though the aviation board had no intention of hiring the company.
Columbus does not have a formal policy about earnest checks, although most of the checks are given to the city’s clerk-treasurer as they arrive with documents sent to City Hall, said Luann Welmer, city clerk-treasurer.
Welmer said she didn’t know the airport had a safe or that the check was being held there. She didn’t know the check existed until it was mentioned in the Sept. 17 meeting. After the meeting, airport officials said they returned the check to The Hageman Group.
Welmer said there needs to be more communication among the mayor, clerk-treasurer and other city officials about how checks such as the $600,000 Hageman earnest money should be handled in the future.
Welmer and her staff and members of the redevelopment commission are bonded, which means the city has insured them for the loss of checks or money during daily operations.
Columbus Municipal Airport Director Brian Payne said city employees at the airport are bonded by the city’s insurance policy, but aviation board members — such as Tennis — are not.
Following the Open Door law
The state’s Open Door Law law requires that governing bodies — defined as a public agency that is a board, commission, authority, council, committee, body or other entity that takes official action on public business — must provide notice of meetings to the public, whether the sessions are open or closed as allowed under the law.The Open Door Law also applies to any committee directly appointed by the governing body or its presiding officer that has authority to take official action, including receiving information, making recommendations or establishing policy, the law states.
There is a difference between the subcommittees of the redevelopment commission and aviation board and the stakeholder committees for The Crump and amphitheater. Because the stakeholder committees were appointed by a city consultant and not by a public board or a board president, their meetings do not fall under notification requirements under Indiana’s Open Door Law. The Crump and amphitheater projects involved a mix of open and closed stakeholder committee meetings, with the open meetings usually occurring before the city council or redevelopment commission, which are required to provide public notice.
In the Walesboro project, Tennis said, he and Tibbs formed a subcommittee of the aviation board to attend meetings and report back to other aviation board members. There were no public notices of meetings Tennis and Tibbs attended representing the aviation board.
What the alternative proposal to selling Walesboro would become was formulated after Brown, Wright, Tennis and Pacheco met with three different engineering companies between mid-August and Sept. 2. Tibbetts attended at least one of the meetings, Pacheco said. Companies that were interviewed were Woolpert Engineering, Dayton, Ohio; StrongBox Commercial, Indianapolis; and HWC Engineering.
During the Sept. 17 joint meeting, Wright said he was asked to attend the engineering company interviews in an email and said he “was available.”
Luke Britt, Indiana’s public access counselor, said if the aviation board’s intent was to have the committee take official action — which includes receiving information, deliberating, establishing policy or making recommendations — that could rise to the level of a violation of the Open Door Law.
He said the law does have an exception allowing closed meetings for interviews and negotiations with industrial or commercial prospects, but official notice of the closed session is still required.
Steve Key, Hoosier State Press Association executive director and general counsel, said the city’s failure to give public notice on public or closed sessions of the two-member aviation or redevelopment subcommittees could open up challenges to both boards’ decisions at the joint meeting.
Tennis contends the way the Walesboro property was handled was the way the city does business — with meetings among city employees, board members and engineering firms occurring all the time. What he labeled as subcommittees report back to full boards during open meetings, where the final decision is made, he said.
Logston said he would argue that Tennis having Tibbetts attend the meetings and Brown inviting Wright to attend were invitations about who might be able to participate, not appointments of committees.
Logston said the city places individuals on various committees, boards and commissions at the beginning of every year. In general, public notice is provided when these groups meet, he said.
“But there are occasions that meetings have to take place for the ongoing efficiency of local government,” Logston said. “To require everyone to be notified would be inefficient and inappropriate.”
The Indiana Open Door Law designates as a governing body under Indiana Code 5-14-1.5-2(b):
A public agency that is a board, commission, authority, council, committee, body or other entity which takes official action on public business.
Any committee directly appointed by the governing body or its presiding officer to which authority to take official action upon public business has been delegated, except for agents appointed by the governing body to conduct collective bargaining on behalf of the governing body.
Indiana law detailing how Request for Proposals are handled is in Chapter 9, Section 5-22-9 (1-10) of the Indiana Code.