Fairness of jail presentations controversial

Four finalists for the construction manager position for the county’s proposed 976-bed jail may get a chance to make presentations to the Winnebago County Board thanks to an April 10 motion by Winnebago County Board member Jim Hughes (D-11).

Controversy has surrounded the county’s “recommended choice” of Bob Stenstrom, president/CEO of Stenstrom Companies, Ltd., and Rhode Island-based Gilbane Building Co., for the new jail’s construction manager position. Critics have argued that all finalists should be allowed to make presentations to the board, not just the recommended choice.

Hughes’ motion is on the Public Safety Committee’s agenda for its April 16 meeting, which will be at 5:30 p.m. in room 501 of the County Administration Building, 404 Elm St.

The Stenstrom/Gilbane team made about a 50-minute presentation to the full board April 10 in an attempt to convince members to hire them for the estimated $2.2-$3.3 million jail construction contract.

John Fridh, president of John Fridh and Sons, Inc., told the board the selection process was fair, even though his company was one of the finalists that lost to the Stenstrom/Gilbane team. Winnebago County Board Chairman Kris Cohn (R) agreed with Fridh.

Early last week, Fridh reportedly spoke with Cohn and Stenstrom. The exact nature of the conversation is not known.

Cohn directly or indirectly excercised control over the 11-person evaluating committee that recommended Stenstrom/Gilbane. The committee, which consisted of five board members and six county staff, also chose the Durrant Group Inc., as the jail’s architect.

After the Stenstrom/Gilbane presentation, Winnebago County Board member Reggie Taylor (D-12) angrily expressed concerns about Stenstrom and Gilbane, which resulted in a heated exchange between Taylor and Cohn.

Taylor said Stenstrom recently gave a black-owned business the “runaround,” which resulted in the business not being hired as a subcontractor. Taylor also suggested that Gilbane didn’t do enough to address recent verbal mistreatment of black iron workers at a local construction site. Taylor said his concerns were based on facts, not “he said, she said” innuendo, as Sally Claassen, county purchasing and risk management director, said.

Cohn cut off the exchange between Taylor and Claassen. Taylor responded by angrily and tersely explaining to Cohn that he was an elected public official who would be heard. Stenstrom listened to the exchanges and said he didn’t understand the specifics of Taylor’s concerns or their origins

About a dozen labor union representatives held signs before and during the board meeting protesting the county’s consideration of the Stenstrom/Gilbane team. One sign read, “BJ [Stenstrom] can we have a ride on your plane too?” The sign was in reference to Cohn’s use of Stenstrom’s aircraft during her campaign for the Illinois Secretary of State’s office last year.

Rick Beck, marketing representative for the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 23, said his concerns were Stenstrom’s use of nonunion labor at Pearson Plumbing and Heating Co. (a division of Stenstrom) and Gilbane’s more than 100 Occupational, Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations during the past 12 years.

Stenstrom informed the board that his companies have had only one OSHA violation the last two years. A Gilbane representative said, “We’re the nation’s safest construction manager.”

Stenstrom also said his company does not run a “dual operation” of union and nonunion labor for construction. Stenstrom asserted that all his firm’s construction positions use union labor.

Cohn’s use of Stenstrom’s aircraft during her campaign last year has also been a topic of controversy because she has been a major proponent for the proposed $110 million jail.

An undated “planned gifting” document, that appears to have been typewritten by Stenstrom, indicates $500,000 of Stenstrom’s planned “gift” to Rock Valley College (RVC) would be through the sale of Stenstrom’s aircraft. In return, RVC named a building after the Stenstrom family in May 2002.

RVC President Roland Chapdelaine said the college received a cash donation from Stenstrom in October 2001. At the time, Stenstrom was also director of the RVC Foundation—the money-generating arm of RVC.

The number and type of aircraft Stenstrom owns is unknown because Stenstrom has previously refused to answer the Times’ questions.

Christie Stenstrom-Jarrett, public relations and marketing director for Stenstrom, refused to comment on whether RVC actually received the money from the sale of the aircraft. She also said the Stenstrom company “didn’t like” the numerous articles in The Rock River Times that included her company. She was offered an invitation to submit a guest column to The Rock River Times, but, as of April 15, no column had been submitted.

Stenstrom is currently construction manager for RVC’s Support Services Building. RVC officials awarded Stenstrom the no-bid position through the construction management designation, which is currently allowed under Illinois law.

Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli said, although it is currently legal under state law, he personally thought the RVC project should have been put out for competitive bidding rather than awarding it to Stenstrom . He said it appeared Stenstrom was acting more as a general contractor than as a construction manager.

Illinois State Sen., Dan Rutherford (R-Pontiac) introduced a bill, which has been passed in the Senate, that would tighten restrictions on the state’s use of construction managers. Rutherford expressed concerns about local taxing district’s past use of construction managers as one of the reasons he introduced the bill.

However, Rutherford emphasized that the designation has been a useful development tool for many taxpayer-funded construction projects statewide. Rutherford said he hoped local governments would follow the state’s lead and adopt the tighter restrictions, if the legislation passes the Illinois House of Representatives later this month.

The senator will be in Rockford April 28 to address the local chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

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