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URA bid went to highest of three finalists

By Jeremy Boren
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Saturday, August 16, 2008

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An engineering firm won a three-way bidding contest to oversee construction at the Pittsburgh Technology Center even though it didn't offer the lowest price, according to records obtained from the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

In March, the city-run authority's board unanimously approved paying McTish, Kunkel & Associates up to $525,000 to manage road paving, utility line relocation, landscaping and other work in support of a planned 1-million-square-foot expansion of the South Oakland tech park.

Two other engineering firms that made the final cut submitted lower bids: Trumbull Corp. of West Mifflin, $510,027.87; and Wilbur Smith Associates Inc. of the North Side, $361,756.

Pittsburgh's code states such contracts must be awarded to the "lowest responsible bidder."

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Acting URA Executive Director Rob Stephany said a firm's fee is not "one of the most important" factors in awarding a contract. Other factors considered are minority participation among the company's employees and its ability to perform the job.

Stephany said the Trumbull and Wilbur Smith proposals "did not hit the mark," but couldn't detail the problems.

Companies with a history of working with the URA have an edge over other firms, Stephany said. That was one factor that prompted URA staff members to recommend McTish to the authority's board for approval, he said.

"We got three proposals, two were from firms that have a relationship with us and have had a past relationship," Stephany said referring to McTish and Wilbur Smith. "McTish is a firm that we see as a very capable firm."

Both firms have a relationship with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his successful 2006-07 mayoral campaign.

Matthew McTish, president of the company that bears his surname, gave $10,000 to Ravenstahl's campaign in December 2006. It is one the few five-digit contributions the mayor received between September 2006 and December 2007, the latest campaign records available.

Six Wilbur Smith executives, including company president Hollis Walker Jr., gave Ravenstahl a combined $7,500 between January and October last year, the records show. Wilbur Smith won three engineering consultant contracts worth $1.12 million in 2007.

McTish and Wilbur Smith officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Yarone Zober, Ravenstahl's chief of staff, said the Wilkins-based McTish and other firms do not receive special preference because of their donations.

"There's no quid pro quo," he said

The URA refused to release e-mails that discussed awarding the contract to McTish.

URA lawyer Sharon M. O'Neill said the e-mails were "part of the deliberative process" and are not required to be publicly disclosed under the state's Right-to-Know Act.

Zober, who serves as the URA's chairman, said he wants to see the development authority move away from using the same firms repeatedly.

"I've said to (URA) staff, 'Let's open up opportunities to work for companies that have not worked for the city or URA before," Zober said.

"You get this sort of standard response, 'Well, we've never worked with somebody.' And that's the reason not to work with them. Just because things have been done a certain way for 20 or 30 years, where you've worked with one or two key people over the years, it doesn't mean it's the best way to do it."

Jeremy Boren can be reached at jboren@tribweb.com or 412-765-2312.
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