As the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority plans for billions of dollars of federally mandated work to eliminate sewage overflows during wet weather, there remains a “pay-to-play” perception in hiring and procurement at the agency, the city controller said Wednesday.
Controller Michael Lamb said an audit shows Alcosan has made strides in improving record-keeping and contracting procedures in recent years, but more needs to be done.
“There's this continuing perception that everything at Alcosan is pay-to-play, whether it's contracting, whether it’s personnel, hiring, any of these issues,” Mr. Lamb said. “We wanted to get in and make sure these procedures are in place because we know that Alcosan's going to grow over the next 20 years.
“And so, while we didn't find evidence of it, it clearly is a perception and it's a perception they need to deal with. The best way to deal with that perception is to shine a light on everything they do. … I think the leadership right now at Alcosan is very much on the same page.”
Mr. Lamb's latest examination of Alcosan was limited in scope, focusing mainly on the status of recommendations outlined in a 2009 joint audit conducted by his office and the county controller.
The 2009 audit centered on procurement practices for professional service, construction materials and commodities contracts and produced 12 recommendations. They included revising contract-award and bid-evaluation procedures, creating a system for numbering and tracking professional service contracts — which are not required to be given to the lowest responsible bidder — and improving record-keeping for those contracts.
In response, the authority created a records and documentation manager position and tasked the manager with creating a numbering system to organize and identify contract files and a checklist to ensure the award process is followed.
“We're talking about really the biggest infrastructure project in the history of this county,” Mr. Lamb said. “They're doing a much better job than they were in 2009.”
Many other recommendations have been implemented or are in the process of being completed, though the authority has not adopted state procurement rules yet for professional service contracts, specifically documenting how winning firms met criteria laid out in requests for proposals. The new audit also found the authority does not always follow the written procedures for awarding professional service contracts and recommended that the authority verify that contractors meet stated minority, women-owned and disadvantaged business goals.
It also recommended the authority make its hiring process more transparent by allowing online applications.
“When you stray from your written policies, that's when you have problems,” Mr. Lamb said. “Generally we're very happy with what's going on over there.”
In a letter attached to the report, Arletta Scott Williams, Alcosan’s executive director, said the authority intends to “continue implementation of any and all measures to strengthen both the effectiveness and transparency of all authority procurement processes,” including adding a procurement officer to the staff.
Jeanne Clark, a spokeswoman for the authority, said the procurement officer was expected to start on Monday but would not name the individual or provide details on his or her background. Ms. Clark said the authority also is implementing a revised procurement policy manual.
“We find these audits very helpful, because they point us to where we can serve the public better,” she said.
Alcosan is revising the $2 billion Wet Weather Plan that was found deficient by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in January because it did not comply with the water-quality goals outlined in a 2008 consent order that sought to eliminate illegal sewage overflows from Allegheny County’s treatment systems, many of which combine stormwater and sewage in the same pipes.
Robert Zullo: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @rczullo.
Robert Zullo: email@example.com or 412-263-3909. Twitter: @rczullo. First Published August 13, 2014 12:00 AM