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State auditor to review Cheney Stadium renovation project

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on April 28, 2011 at 10:39 am |
April 28, 2011 12:41 pm

State auditors will review the publicly-bid renovations at city-owned Cheney Stadium to find out if the project has met state bidding laws, a spokeswoman for Washington Auditor Brian Sonntag said this week.

“Specifically, we will be looking at whether the city … followed the laws around the design/build process,” spokeswoman Mindy Chambers said Wednesday.

The review of the ballpark project will be part of the state’s regular accountability audit of the city set to begin in August, Chambers said.

The auditor’s office routinely reviews publicly bid projects carried out by municipal governments in Washington. City officials can also request certain projects be included in such reviews.  In this case, Councilman Ryan Mello specifically requested Cheney Stadium be examined, Chambers said.

“But we were planning on looking at it before he called,” she added.

Mello, who serves on the council’s Government Performance and Finance Committee, said “several council members asked me to look into the matter in my role on the committee.”

When he contacted the auditor’s office, Mello said he was told “they were actually already looking into it, because they read the newspaper and follow those sorts of things.”

“It’s very typical that they do these kinds of performance audits and they do anything that has gotten a lot of scrutiny,” he added.

As part of a deal to get Schlegel Sports, the Dallas-based owners of the minor-league Tacoma Rainiers baseball team, to extend its Cheney Stadium lease with the city, Tacoma’s city council agreed to a $28 million bond sale in late 2009 to cover most of the $30 million worth of upgrades — the first major renovations in the ballpark’s 51-year history.

The city then negotiated the lease extension, in which Rainiers’ ownership agreed to keep the team playing in Tacoma through 2041. Repayment of debt created by bond sales largely falls to ballpark patrons via new $1 fees added to each ticket.

News of the audit comes less than four weeks after city and Rainiers officials unveiled the new-look stadium in time for the team’s 2011 home opener. Among other amenities, the renovated ballpark features a new three-tiered superstructure with more bathrooms, concession stands and new team offices and luxury suites.

The project’s design-build process – a fast-track alternative public procurement process for certain government construction projects – has been marred by a string of allegations.

After a selection committee made up of city and Rainiers officials and their consultants tentatively chose a design submitted by a bid team led by Mortenson Construction, members of two competing teams raised fairness concerns. The city reviewed those claims, but found the process was done fairly and legally. The council ultimately awarded a $26.5 million contract to Mortenson in March 2010.

Last month, The News Tribune also ran a story based on public records that revealed Mortenson had received information during closed-door meetings with the selection committee that other teams did not get.

Specifically, Mortenson learned that the renovated ballpark’s roof coverage did not need to be equal to that of the old ballpark, even though initial bidding documents say such coverage was a required feature. Mortenson later won the contract with a ballpark design featuring a stunted roof, using the savings from the smaller roof to include other sought-after amenities.

City, team and Mortenson officials have since insisted the process was fair. They’ve also noted that a revised and final bid solicitation issued on Jan. 8 2010 did not mention roof coverage. The final solicitation gave teams six days to revise and resubmit previous designs that had gone over-budget (The final solicitation information was included in the TNT’s story).

Aside from the renovations, the last month has brought other changes to the ballpark and team. An investment group led by former wireless executive Mikel Thomsen recently took ownership of the Rainiers.

And Mike Combs, the city’s longtime Public Assembly Facilities Director – the primary city official behind the ballpark renovation project – is also set to retire at the end of this week. Combs, a 25 year city employee, has said he wanted to see the project completed before leaving his city post. His retirement party is set for tonight at the Summit Club, a new restaurant in the revamped stadium.

Chambers, the spokeswoman for Sonntag, said she isn’t sure how long the state audit will take.

“That will depend in large part on what we find regarding this issue and anything else that might crop up,” she said.

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