The Indian Trail Improvement District Board of Supervisors voted last week to advertise for a new engineering firm after former Supervisor Penny Riccio alleged during public comment that the district’s current firm, Engenuity Group, had acted unethically.
The board voted 3-2 on March 13 to publish requests for qualifications for engineering consultants.
Riccio’s comments stemmed from an ill-fated water agreement proposal between ITID and the City of West Palm Beach, which was rejected by the board in a 3-2 decision last month.
The controversial agreement would have begun a study of the feasibility of establishing a permanent pump structure at the southern end of ITID’s L Canal that would redirect stormwater discharge from ITID’s M-1 Basin into the West Palm Beach Water Catchment Area via West Palm Beach’s M Canal.
While the proposal could have given ITID additional drainage capacity, opponents of the plan worried that West Palm Beach would use Acreage water to fix the city’s longstanding dry season water shortages.
At last week’s meeting, Riccio said that it had been brought to her attention and the attention of the board that Engenuity Group had been part of a proposal by a potential engineering consultant to the city.
“I find it was the intent of Engenuity Group to not act on behalf of their client, also known as the Indian Trail Improvement District, as faithful agents or trustees,” Riccio said. “They did not conduct themselves honorably, responsibly or ethically.”
Riccio asserted that Engenuity Group was in partnership with the Atkins engineering firm, which had responded to a request for qualifications (RFQ) by the City of West Palm Beach.
“Atkins was the presenter, and directly underneath Atkins, it says in partnership with Engenuity Group,” Riccio said. “This kind of leaking and bleeding of our tax money has got to stop. I ask that this board place this serious and egregious matter on tonight’s agenda.”
Supervisor Gary Dunkley made a motion to place discussion of engineering firms on the agenda. Supervisor Carol Jacobs seconded the motion, which carried 3-2, with supervisors Michelle Damone and Ralph Bair opposed.
ITID Engineer Lisa Tropepe said her firm, which has been providing engineering services for more than 33 years, is listed with such large firms as Atkins, which does business nationwide and internationally.
“We are considered a small business enterprise (SBE), which is a designation that was given to us by the county and several other governmental agencies because we are a small, local firm here in Palm Beach County,” Tropepe said. “We provide jobs to employees in Palm Beach County. Almost every day, requests for qualifications go out throughout Palm Beach County for various projects.”
Tropepe said that in the past several years, there has been a rule that 70 percent of jobs must be provided by local small business enterprises to assist bigger companies to provide services, because Engenuity has more than 25 employees who live in the county.
“This RFQ, which quite frankly I personally did not know anything about, was for surveying services,” Tropepe said. “Atkins is a global firm. They made a presentation and utilized our SBE certification.”
Tropepe pointed out that Atkins was not awarded the West Palm Beach contract and if it had, Engenuity had only been listed as an SBE.
“There is nothing illegal, immoral or against any of the rules that we have to follow as professional engineers in participating as a sub-consultant in a certain RFQ,” Tropepe said.
Tropepe said that if Engenuity ever had a project that was in potential conflict with ITID, it would inform the board. “For the last five years, we have gotten direction from the board,” she said. “We don’t create work or jobs without you telling us the direction you want to go.”
Tropepe said Engenuity had followed the board’s direction by pursuing several projects since the Tropical Storm Isaac flooding, including the C-51 reservoir project, additional discharge to the L and M canals, a comprehensive review of the response to the Isaac flooding, a canal evaluation proposal and a workshop on a comprehensive approach to address water issues.
“We are here at your pleasure and at your direction,” Tropepe said, adding that despite criticism about flooding following Tropical Storm Isaac, her firm and the district had to abide by permits available to them, including a quarter-inch allowable drainage per day. “We follow your direction, we have to follow Florida Statute 298. That is the direction the State of Florida has requested district engineers to follow, and there’s a whole litany of things we have to follow.”
Dunkley said he had nothing against Engenuity but felt a request for qualifications should be put out.
“We have been lucky to have Engenuity as our engineering firm,” he said. “They have been with us for five years. Their contract is finished. This is 90 days before our contract automatically renews. I am calling for an RFQ, and they are free to try their hand again. But I think, as a community, we need new ideas and a new way of looking at things. They can bid for our business again, but automatic renewal is bad.”
Jacobs said that if they were going to go out to bid for engineering, they should go out to bid for legal services as well. “I think we should do both, in all fairness,” she said.
Damone said the accusation that Engenuity was working for the City of West Palm Beach was false and that the board had already given Tropepe direction not to pursue a pump station agreement.
Damone added that although she understood Dunkley’s point, the district would be losing historical knowledge of the district if a contract were awarded to another firm. “I’ve seen the district without it and I’ve seen the district with it, and we functioned a lot better with it,” she said.
Dunkley made a motion to seek RFQs for both engineering and legal firms, but attorney Mary Viator said that although an RFQ for a legal firm was fine, the agenda item that evening was regarding engineering. Therefore, Dunkley modified his motion to engineering only. The motion carried 3-2 with Damone and Bair opposed.