Merced mayor questions ethics of firm hired for HSR planning

Richard Davis, vice president of transportation planning and engineer for Hatch Mott MacDonald, right, speaks to Merced City Council members during a council meeting this month. Hatch Mott MacDonald was awarded a contract for the first phase of the high-speed rail by the City Council.
Richard Davis, vice president of transportation planning and engineer for Hatch Mott MacDonald, right, speaks to Merced City Council members during a council meeting this month. Hatch Mott MacDonald was awarded a contract for the first phase of the high-speed rail by the City Council. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

During a contentious Merced City Council meeting on Monday, more than one member of the council questioned the ethics of one member of the high-speed rail consulting firm awarded a contract with the city.

Mayor Stan Thurston publicly questioned a local team member, Lee Boese of Hatch Mott MacDonald, the Sacramento firm awarded the planning contract. The mayor accused Boese of trying to sway the vote of the council by applying political pressure.

Members of the council said the headbutting between Thurston and Boese seemed to step beyond civil debate and into personal attacks. After a separate meeting earlier this month, Boese and Thurston got into a shouting match inside the council chambers. It apparently happened after the video cameras that record meetings had stopped rolling.

In a survey of the council on the dais on Monday, all of the councilmen had been approached by Boese or other representatives of Hatch Mott MacDonald leading up to the interview process that determined the contract winner. The council members said they had not been approached by any other groups looking for the contract.

Thurston said that “clouded” the process. “The playing field is supposed to remain level and fair,” he said.

Boese, a Merced orthodontist and longtime supporter of high-speed rail, told the Sun-Star he did not step over any ethical lines. “I think this is a big decision, just like UC Merced,” he said on Tuesday. “That’s not putting pressure on people; that’s just a fact.”

The council already picked Hatch Mott MacDonald, an engineering firm with offices around North America, this month to begin planning for a high-speed rail station in Merced, but the decision was controversial because the company was not the one recommended by a committee put together for that task.

The playing field is supposed to remain level and fair.

Mayor Stan Thurston

The roughly $660,000 contract was on the agenda for Monday’s meeting in the “consent calendar,” which is a list of routine items usually considered not to be controversial. It takes a second vote by the council to make the contract official.

Ultimately, the council approved the contract with a 6-1 vote. Thurston cast the dissenting vote.

Thurston said Hatch Mott MacDonald misrepresented itself during interviews as having UC Merced’s support. He pointed to a letter dated Oct. 14 written by Chancellor Dorothy Leland.

“We take no official position on the outcome of the process,” the letter said.

Cara Strom, the program director for Hatch Mott MacDonald, pushed back against the questions, saying any conversation with the council were above board. “Hatch Mott MacDonald has a very strong ethics program,” she said.

Strom said the firm did not claim to have the backing of UC Merced, but rather was touting the fact it has worked with faculty before.

Councilman Mike Murphy said he believes Boese stepped over ethical lines during the process. Murphy said he has not declared his own intent to run for mayor, but that Boese hinted that the vote would be important for political aspirations.

He said he was told by Boese, “We’re looking at who to support (for mayor) based on how this went.”

Murphy said he cut the conversation off there because it was stepping over ethical lines. He told Hatch Mott MacDonald representatives at the meeting they should rethink their connection to Boese, who is part of the outreach effort in the Merced area.

Boese said he thought the council would be remiss to pick Berkeley-based Opticos Design Inc., which was the recommendation of city staff.

Boese went so far as to call Thurston a “bully.” “Everything with Stan is a shouting match,” he said.

Thurston brushed off Boese’s comments Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve taken the lead on the issue and said what I had to say and consider that leadership, not bullying,” Thurston responded.

On more than one occasion, Thurston has been skeptical about the state’s plans for high-speed rail, including describing it as a “boondoggle.” Boese said he believes the mayor is trying to drag the city’s feet.

The process to pick a firm was flawed, Boese said, and the focus should have been on developing plans for a station.

Mayor Pro Tem Josh Pedrozo said he saw nothing unethical or inappropriate in speaking to members of Hatch Mott MacDonald, saying the other firms could have approached him just the same.

The city has to have its station planning document in place by December 2016. Pedrozo said that’s further reason not to rethink the decision now.

Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, said as long as all the firms were allowed the opportunity for access to the members of the council, Hatch Mott MacDonald was not given special attention.

But she noted it’s best to compare apples to apples.

“What you’d want is rewarding a contract just based on who’s qualified, not who’s had the most contact and the best relationship with council,” she said.

During Monday’s meeting, Thurston asked the council to reconsider its approval of Hatch Mott MacDonald and award the contract to yet another firm, AECOM, which is working on the high-speed rail stop in Fresno. That vote failed to get a majority, with Thurston, Murphy and Councilman Michael Belluomini casting three “yes” votes.

With AECOM off the table, both Murphy and Belluomini said they were comfortable backing Hatch Mott MacDonald.

Thaddeus Miller: 209-385-2453