Reconsider jail’s construction manager

“I had always heard the merchants say that truth was not possible in business. I did not think so then, nor do I now.”

—Mohandas K. Gandhi Gandhi’s wisdom is as applicable today as at the time he penned those words–both in politics and business. Unfortunately, the business and community leaders in our area seem to be ignorant of this principle, especially when it comes to building the county’s proposed, 976-bed jail. The truth about the need for a new jail, the process by which it will be funded and built, and its cost and value to the community has yet to be convincingly argued by leaders.

The spending of more than $61 million at Rock Valley College (RVC) on dubious construction and the proposed $110 million jail are the largest local projects area taxpayers have ever funded. If approved by the county, Robert Stenstrom and his Stenstrom Companies Ltd. will have been involved in both these projects as a construction manager. Controversy surrounds these projects that smacks of cronyism, which is rampant in this community and will be described later in this column.

Stenstrom is the county’s recommended choice, along with Rhode Island-based Gilbane Building Co., as construction manager for the county’s new jail. Citizens and county board members should reject this attempt at political payback.

If the Stenstrom/Gilbane team is awarded the estimated $2.2-$3.3 million contract, the county’s selection process for the construction manager will further erode people’s trust in our community and business leaders’ duty to seek truth in thought, word and deed.

Scrutiny of the Stenstrom/Gilbane choice gives a glimpse into how political and economic entities interact to form part of a local oligarchy, which succeeds in promoting their own self-interests at the community’s expense.

Is a construction manager best?

The question board members and citizens should ask is whether the county’s selection of a construction manager rather than a general contractor is best for taxpayers and the community for building a new jail?

Construction experts, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed that a general contractor, which would require competitive bidding, would better serve us all. Instead, the county has chosen to use a construction delivery system that has been so rife with past controversy and corruption, a bill has been introduced in the Illinois Senate that seeks to eliminate such problems. The bill won’t be passed fast enough to save Winnebago County taxpayers.

The current state law that allows local governments to designate construction managers has already cost this community untold millions of dollars and trust in our leaders.

For example, Rock Valley College’s president’s use of Stenstrom as the construction manager for Support Services Building, could have cost the community as much as $1 million since a general contracting/competitive bidding process was not used. The non-competitive process that was used is currently allowed through construction management designation.

The RVC situation is made worse when one considers that the college shouldn’t have needed a construction manager. RVC President Roland Chapdelaine and the RVC Board of Trustees should have hired a more appropriately qualified facilities director rather than the under-qualified and former Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Bill Sjostrom, as RVC’s facilities director. There’s no shortage of cronies at RVC, nor for the jail’s construction project.

County Board member and RVC Trustee Chris Johnson (R-4) said using a competitive bidding process would put local contractors at risk of not being awarded the position due to the potential of being under bid. However, critics argued that contractors from outside the area would be at a disadvantage because they would not be as familiar with local construction costs and have to factor travel and lodging expenses into their bids. Also, nothing stops locals from teaming with outside firms.

If the county’s current construction management plan is implemented, taxpayers and the community will never know exactly how much could have been saved on jail construction costs because the process wasn’t subjected to competitive bidding or outright disclosure of the cost of the project manager and construction manager before they were hired. Board members should rethink the direction they have chosen by sending the resolution to hire a construction manager back to committee.

De plane! De plane!

The controversy surrounding Chapdelaine and Stenstrom doesn’t end with RVC’s use of a construction manager. The questionable activities include another RVC/Stenstrom construction contract and Stenstrom’s $1 million “gift” to the college, under the guise of philanthropy.

An undated “planned gifting” document appears to have been typewritten by Stenstrom to RVC. The document indicates $500,000 of Stenstrom’s planned “gift” to RVC would be through the sale of Stenstrom’s aircraft. The number and type of aircraft Stenstrom owns is unknown because Stenstrom has declined to answer questions.

On April 7, Winnebago County Board Chairman Kris Cohn (R) told WNTA radio’s Chris Bowman that she and other county officials recently used Stenstrom’s aircraft for a trip to Springfield. Is this the same aircraft that was supposed to be sold with the proceeds given to RVC? Neither Stenstrom nor Chapdelaine will answer these or other questions.

Stenstrom’s undated gift payment document stipulates an allowance for Stenstrom’s “employees and their children to attend the school (RVC) as outlined to me by Suzanne (Berger, Vice President for Institutional Advancement and the RVC Foundation) and Don (Williams).” The document and the timing of the awarding of the RVC contracts suggests an illegal exchange of cash and services—a quid pro quo. Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli has yet to address this issue despite having received documents that support this assessment about eight weeks ago.

Illinois State Board of Election information shows that in 2002, Stenstrom allowed Cohn to use his aircraft for her failed attempt for the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. Stenstrom reported $7,114 worth of “in-kind” contributions to the state for Cohn’s use of his aircraft between June 2002 and September 2002.

Also in September 2002, Chapdelaine contributed $300 to Cohn’s campaign. Details of this and other expenses were the subject of several Times articles earlier this year. Stenstrom also gave Cohn’s campaign $2,500 cash in May 2002. Cohn has been a major proponent in pushing the new jail but claims she had no influence on the committee members who chose the jail’s architect and construction manager.

Gilbane’s past and community colleges

The Chicago Tribune reported Sept. 1, 2000, that Downers Grove (Illinois) North High School students started school three days later than the scheduled start of the 2000-2001 school year because Gilbane missed the Aug. 18 completion date.

In the article, Dave Eblen, superintendent of Downers Grove School District 99, said, “We compressed our school calender last year and this year at great inconvenience to the students so we could give Gilbane a longer construction period, and they still did not deliver on time.”

Gilbane blamed the delay on five bomb threats that were called to their office during August 2000. A federal lawsuit (02-CV-2260) was filed in 2002 by Gilbane against Downers Grove. Downers Grove filed a counterclaim. The case has a status hearing later this month in Chicago.

A May 1, 2001, Chicago Tribune article described The Bartlett (Illinois) Park District’s problems with Gilbane missing a construction deadline for its recreation center and cost overruns.

Jeff Masters, project executive for Gilbane, said the center cost more than was budgeted primarily because officials “elected to put as much into the building as they could.” Winnebago County officials should consider that Gilbane worked with Bartlett without agreeing to a maximum price for the center. Similarly, the jail has no fixed price.

In Ohio, a federal judge ruled that the state couldn’t recover $2.3 million from Gilbane even though the judge appreciated the attorney general’s desire to “root out corruption and enforce the laws…however, the audit [by the state] does not provide actionable finding of recovery….”

According to the state audit, Gilbane received public money for work that was not performed as construction manager in the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District, which was reported in The Columbus Dispatch Oct. 20, 2001.

In the 1990s, Gilbane contributed $21,500 to help pass referendums at Elgin and Harper community colleges. Gilbane helped construct buildings at both colleges.

Chapdelaine has said he will ask voters for an increase in the college’s operating budget within one year. During the last three consecutive fiscal years, Chapdelaine has presided over unprecedented deficit spending to the tune of $1,747,809 and plunged the college into more than $61 million of debt for dubious construction projects without referendum.

Sources said Chapdelaine wanted a piece of the jail tax to fund public safety programs at RVC. Chapdelaine later denied making the statement because he knew county officials would not and did not publicly support such an idea. So, where did Chapdelaine get the jail tax idea? The issue appears to have been discussed at an August 2001 jail planning meeting, according to meeting minutes.

Do we need a new jail?

More importantly, as The Times’ series, “The Criminal Justice-Industrial Complex,” indicated last fall, the research into the need for a new jail is questionable, at best. Cohn said the construction manager selection process was the same as the jail’s architect, The Durrant Group, Inc.

With this in mind, it should be no surprise that Mark Goldman, the Atlanta jail consultant who originally recommended a 1,307-bed jail, has been hired by Durrant as a “sub-consultant.” Goldman boasts that “he managed and led all facility planning for the largest prison development program in the world.” Knowing this and that Goldman views jail construction as a means for economic development, is it any wonder that we were recommended such a gigantic jail?

The fact is, if the county built a 5,000-bed jail, it would soon be filled to capacity. The criminal justice system and crime are difficult subjects to understand and address. However, increased jail capacities will likely increase Winnebago County’s crime rate, not decrease it.

After touring the current jail last fall, crime expert and Western Illinois University Professor Mike Hazlett said the current jail needed renovations, but the county didn’t need a new jail. Instead, Hazlett said if the goal of spending about a half billion of taxpayers’ dollars is to lower the crime rate and alleviate jail overcrowding, the money would be more wisely spent on “broader efforts.”

Such efforts would include increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the criminal justice system, housing, transportation and social services. The efforts would also implement and expand community corrections, neighborhood watch groups, and community policing.

The county is being used by the local oligarchy to line their own pockets at the expense of everyone who will pay the 1 percent increase in the local sales tax. Ironically, the folks that will be hit hardest by this tax are the poor—the group most likely to be incarcerated in the new jail.

Cynics argue that the poor pay for their incarceration. However, if the jail is built, the oligarchy should also have a place in the new jail for those attempting to make democracy a farce. Unfortunately, they won’t because they make the rules.

County officials, reinstate faith in our system: send the construction manager resolution back to committee. Ideally, rethink the whole jail issue and seek the truth in thought, word and deed.

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