Rejecting the theory that he caved to hometown pressure, Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz has dismissed an appeal of his decision to hire a local architect for the next City Hall.
Ruiz last month selected Rowell Brokaw Architects of Eugene as the lead architect on the City Hall project, over THA Architecture of Portland.
THA filed a protest, as allowed under the city’s purchasing rules. The firm said the selection process was “deeply flawed” and questioned whether Ruiz succumbed to political pressure to hire a hometown firm.
Ruiz on Tuesday denied THA’s protest, supporting other city officials who had said previously that the city followed its selection rules.
In written comments to The Register-Guard on Wednesday, Ruiz said Rowell Brokaw’s status as a Eugene-based firm did not give it an unfair advantage over THA.
With Ruiz’s latest decision, the city will finalize its contract with Rowell Brokaw by the end of August, said Jeff Perry, the city’s facility management division manager.
City officials then will work with the firm to develop a schedule for designing the next municipal headquarters, which could be built in about two years.
The City Council wants to construct a smaller City Hall on its present site, the block bounded by East Eighth and Seventh avenues and Pearl and High streets, using as much of the existing 49-year-old building and parking as is practical.
The controversy over the architect’s selection arose at the end of a lengthy process that saw THA and Rowell Brokaw emerge as the leading contenders from seven firms that had responded to the city’s request for architectural services.
After written proposals and presentations to a committee of mostly city officials, THA had received a numerical score of 92.1 and Rowell Brokaw got an 88.6, to finish first and second, respectively.
With the rankings that close, Ruiz said he wanted the public to help him decide which to hire.
In May, the two firms made presentations to a standing-room crowd of more than 50 people at the Eugene Public Library, including a 10-member committee of residents that conferred with Ruiz afterwards.
In June, Ruiz announced that he had selected Rowell Brokaw, saying the opinions from residents helped him make the choice.
In his written appeal a week later, THA principal Jonah Cohen questioned the selection.
He noted that THA received the highest numerical ranking, and said the city didn’t give the citizens committee copies of the competing firms’ responses to the original requests for proposals.
Instead, after the public presentations at the library, the committee met with Ruiz “behind closed doors and we have been told that no public record or tape recording of that discussion is available,” Cohen said.
“The only person filling out the score sheet was to be the city manager. What was the reason for the radical change in process? Was political pressure exerted on city officials? Was there a belief that, in hindsight, only Eugene firms could be awarded the contract? Whatever the reason, the result was that my firm won the stated process on the merits, then had that success taken away in favor of a entirely new process unlike any other we have seen before,” he said.
On July 3, the city’s acting assistant finance manager, Vicki Silvers, rejected Cohen’s protest, upholding the city’s selection of Rowell Brokaw.
Silvers wrote that the city’s solicitation documents gave it the authority to add other “tiers” of evaluation to help it decide which firm to hire.
Cohen on July 9 appealed Silvers’ decision to Ruiz. He asked Ruiz to recuse himself from deciding the appeal.
“The city manager made the decision to revise the selection criteria and process midstream, and the city manager then solely decided the outcome,” Cohen wrote. “In order for this selection process to be fair, we are, therefore, respectfully requesting that you recuse yourself from the appeal process and let the Eugene City Council make the final decision about our appeal.”
THA was formerly named Thomas Hacker Architects. The city had retained the firm between 2006 and 2008 as the lead consultant on the planning for a large new City Hall.
The planning effort, which included other consultants, cost the city $2 million.
It ground to a halt after the City Council decided that there was little chance voters would support a bond measure to pay for a $100-million-plus City Hall.
The new City Hall project, with a budget of $15 million, would produce a much smaller structure.
In his written denial of THA’s appeal on Tuesday, Ruiz upheld the decision to hire Rowell Brokaw. He said the city code does not allow the City Council to decide appeals.
Ruiz, in his comments to The Register-Guard, said pressure to pick a Eugene firm did not influence his thinking.
“Both teams are top quality design teams and both have significant presence in the knowledge of and connection to Eugene, so the location of the home office of the lead architect of the team was not a determining factor in the final selection,” he said.
Dan Herbert, a retired architect and architecture professor at the University of Oregon, was among the 10 residents who met with Ruiz after the firm’s public presentations at the library.
Ruiz asked the residents to provide their impressions about the firms, Herbert said.
“It was just share your thoughts. We definitely did not try to form a consensus or vote to see if one person favored one firm or another,” he said.
The fact that THA is based in Portland and Rowell Brokaw is from Eugene was “mentioned, but that was not a predominate issue,” Herbert said.
Retired architect William Neel said city officials “got into the weeds” by requiring Rowell Brokaw and THA to undergo the third round of evaluations.
“It’s typical Eugene,” he said. “It’s unique. It’s convoluted. It was of it’s own making. And nobody can make a simple decision.”
Neel said it was likely that Ruiz felt pressure to hire a Eugene firm, though there is no way of knowing whether the city manager yielded to such pressure.
Eugene architect Jonathan Stafford said there was controversy in the early 1960s, when his late father’s firm was selected to design the present City Hall after a design competition judged by architects and city officials.
The design was not supposed to include underground parking, but the design by John Stafford and his partner Ken Morin put the building on pillars, slightly above street level, which enabled parking to go underneath the structure, though not technically underground.
Three other firms that were competing for the work, said “ ‘Wait a minute, that design doesn’t meet the competition program,’ ” he said.
Stafford said he wasn’t familiar with the issues raised by THA, but that he’s glad Rowell Brokaw got the job.
Hiring a Eugene firm, rather than a Portland company, as the lead architect means that more of the public’s money will stay local, he said.
“If the judgment were made that no local firm was capable of doing the work, that is one thing,” he said. “But, in fact, there is a lot of talent here in Eugene. Rowell Brokaw has won a lot of awards, and they do good design. They can handle it.”