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Brick School Board’s ‘No-Bid’ Contracts Draw Scrutiny

Brick Township Board of Education/Schools (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Brick Township Board of Education/Schools (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Brick school board members were questioned by members of the public and one fellow board member on three “no bid” appointments made Thursday night.

The board, in a 5-2 vote, appointed Netta Architects to act as the district’s architect of record, and CHA Consulting as its civil engineer of record. Additionally, in a 4-2 vote, the board awarded a “no bid” contract to Bowman and Company to provide auditing services.

The appointments are part of the continuing fallout from the “Thursday Night Massacre” incident in January, when a new board majority fired nearly all of the district’s contractors and professionals and sought to then fill the positions with new appointees. The auditing firm, architectural firm and engineering firms that had been contracted with the board were allowed to stay on to complete projects that were already underway, officials have said.

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The new contractors will be paid the same as their predecessors, however that in and of itself stirred controversy, since the board’s Finance Committee apparently requested Business Administrator James Edwards to specifically call the preferred contractors to see if they would be willing to match the prices of the previous firms in their respective areas of expertise.

“How were these firms chosen,” asked board member Karyn Cusanelli, who followed up her question with inquiries into references and who made recommendations as to which firms would be chosen.

Board President John Lamela said the contractors were chosen based on “referrals we were comfortable with,” but did not elaborate.

“They were giving us the best proposal for the best price rate,” said board member Victoria Pakala, of the chosen firms. “We were looking for quality.”

“I still don’t agree with the non-fair and open process,” said resident Larry Reid, a former board member.

Reid said since there has been a complaint filed alleging improprieties in campaign finance documentation filed by the “Clean Slate” team which took a majority of board seats in January, the connections between contractors and board members may not be known.

Board Attorney Nicholas Montenegro said all of the firms submitted certifications that they did not contribute a “reportable” donation of $300 or more to elected officials on the board.

Laurence K. Uher, vice president of Netta Architects, said he has worked in school districts for over 20 years, including in the Brick district with a previous employer.

“I have been working school districts for the past 20 years … throughout the entire state,” he said.

All three firms are solidly entrenched in state politics.

Netta’s firm has held contracts statewide and was, for years, in the influential position as the architectural contractor for Union County government.

Bowman and Company held numerous positions across South Jersey, and was referenced in a 2008 report from state Comptroller Matthew Boxer for having been the auditor of Camden County government for more than 10 years, against the recommendation of the state that municipalities switch auditing firms periodically. After the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a series of articles on the subject, Bowman withdrew its bid to continue as Camden’s auditor for a 14th year. Before the withdrawal, members of the firm had donated thousands of dollars to Mayor Dana Redd.

Records from CHA Consulting have been subpoenaed as part of a federal investigation in New York, centering on whether a lobbyist steered companies to donate to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign.

Brick school board members insisted the contracts and appointments were all above board.

“We wanted to make sure that there were no additional costs being brought in,” said board member Stephanie Wohlrab, who is employed as a professional Democratic campaign fundraiser. “We felt they were the best qualified, and we asked Mr. Edwards to check and see if they would come down to the current rates.”

Cusanelli and board member Sharon Cantillo cast the two ‘no’ votes.