Engineer blasts Belleville, IL, officials for false information

Engineer

Geri Boyer, president of Kaskaskia Engineering Group in Belleville, said she’s fighting the termination of her company’s contract with the city out of “principle” and because it sets a bad precedent for treatment of local contractors.

Provided

The owner of a local engineering company is accusing the city of Belleville administration of lying to aldermen to influence their decision-making for political reasons.

Geri Boyer, president of Kaskaskia Engineering Group, appeared at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting to protest its Jan. 3 vote to terminate a $39,000 contract that her company had been awarded in May 2021 for construction oversight on a Forest Avenue road project that hasn’t yet begun.

“I’m here to ask you to reconsider given that there was no just cause for the termination because you were given false information,” she said.

Boyer was referring to City Engineer Sal Elkott’s statement on Jan. 3 that the contract had to be terminated under a new policy adopted by the City Council, though no such policy exists. In a letter to aldermen, Boyer also alleged that Mayor Patty Gregory and other city officials had corroborated on the misinformation.

In an interview, Boyer speculated that the Gregory administration is discriminating against her company because of her regular work on city projects under former Mayor Mark Eckert, who Gregory defeated in the 2021 election.

Gregory declined to answer questions for this story but released the following statement through Kathy Kaiser, the city’s director of public relations and communications:

“The contract is terminable by its terms and the City’s reasons for contract termination were explained by the City Engineer as set forth in the minutes for that meeting, specifically that the design firm and the construction inspection firm on a project should be different.”

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Geri Boyer, owner of Kaskaskia Engineering Group, standing at microphone, speaks at a Belleville City Council meeting Tuesday night about the termination of her company’s contract on a Forest Avenue road project. City of Belleville

Engineer’s recommendation

At the Jan. 3 meeting, Elkott told aldermen he was recommending termination of Kaskaskia’s contract because the City Council had approved a policy prohibiting engineering companies from providing construction oversight on projects they had designed.

Kaskaskia designed the Forest Avenue project, which includes road improvements and new sidewalks. Boyer said it’s “standard procedure” for one company to do both jobs for municipalities and the state.

Elkott didn’t allege any wrongdoing by Kaskaskia when making his recommendation. He noted that the company’s contract included a clause that allowed for termination.

“With my responsibilities as city engineer, I have to abide by the will of the public, and the will of the public is represented by this body (the City Council),” he said. “And this body had approved unanimously that the company doing the design be different than the company doing the construction inspection.”

After Elkott made his recommendation on Jan. 3, one alderwoman asked when the City Council had passed the related resolution. Elkott said he didn’t know. Gregory asked if City Attorney Garrett Hoerner had a copy of it. He said “no.”

After a failed effort by six aldermen to table the matter, the City Council voted 8 to 5 to terminate Kaskaskia’s contract with three aldermen absent. Hoerner noted that nine votes were needed for passage. Gregory cast the deciding vote.

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Belleville City Engineer Sal Elkott is at the center of a controversy involving the termination of a contract with Kaskaskia Engineering Group for a Forest Avenue road project. Derik Holtmann [email protected]

Transparency questions

After the Jan. 3 meeting, Boyer filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the resolution described by Elkott. City Clerk Jenny Meyer responded by letter that none existed. Aldermen had discussed the issue at several City Council meetings but apparently never acted on it.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Ward 2 Alderwoman Jamie Eros told the City Council that she had done her own research, discovered that no resolution had been voted on and realized that’s why she hadn’t remembered it.

“I left that meeting (on Jan. 3) feeling like I was lied to, and I didn’t appreciate it,” she said. “And I don’t feel like that’s in (keeping) with the transparency that we’re working so hard to create here in council.”

Gregory told Eros that the administration had “no intention” of misinforming the City Council.

Also on Tuesday night, Eros said she’s not against developing a new policy on contract procedures, but it should be done with accurate information. She suggested the City Council reconsider the Kaskaskia contract.

“There was nothing in writing and voted on by us that said, ‘This is what we decided,’ and so I feel like we voted with maybe some miscommunicated information, and I don’t think that’s fair,” Eros said.

Elkott declined to answer questions regarding Boyer’s accusation and Eros’ concerns. He emailed the following statement through Kaiser:

“It is the position of the Engineering Department that the city’s taxpayers are better served when there is an independent review and construction inspection process. In other words, the company that oversees the review and construction inspection is independent of the Engineer of Record of the design plans.

“Otherwise, the residents could be vulnerable to a situation where the fox is guarding the hen house.”

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Construction on Centreville Avenue in 2021 is an example of the many road projects that private engineering companies and other contractors complete for the city of Belleville. Derik Holtmann [email protected]

Policy disagreement

Boyer maintains that it’s “standard procedure” for an engineering company to design and provide construction oversight on municipal and state projects because the goal isn’t to review them but to make sure contractors follow their plans and specifications.

Boyer said Belleville has had to pay extra for projects in the past when construction oversight was done by companies that hadn’t dealt with regulatory agencies, city officials or neighboring residents during the design process and didn’t understand certain decisions.

Ward 1 Alderman Joe Hazel verified this problem at the City Council meeting on Jan. 3.

“It makes complete sense for the design engineers to inspect the work that the contractors did to make sure that it follows their design, their conversations through the course of this,” he said.

“I’ve also been part of the cost overrides that she was talking about, and it was terrible. Plus, then who are we going to get to inspect the work? A company that was denied the contract to begin with?”

Ward 4 Alderman Raffi Ovian, who serves on the Streets and Grades Committee, presented a different opinion at Tuesday night’s meeting.

“Generally speaking, when you have someone who does the design work, you don’t also have the same person doing the review,” he said. “If there’s a problem with it down the road, who pays for it? It comes back to the city. I don’t know how many times we’ve got burned, probably many times before I became an alderman.

“So I’m in favor of, as we spoke in Streets and Grades, if we’re going to go ahead and basically get a person to do the design work then someone else has to come behind them so we make sure everything plays out the way it should be, so there’s no possibilities of error or limited error.”

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Geri Boyer, president of Kaskaskia Engineering Group in Belleville, is shown with former Mayor Mark Eckert after receiving the 2020 American Society of Civil Engineers St. Louis Section Project of the Year Award for an Ameren site rehabilitation. Provided

Contract replacement

Boyer, 62, founded her own company in Belleville 16 years ago after working for the Illinois Department of Transportation. She now has 60 employees who handle projects throughout the Midwest. The company has won several statewide engineering awards.

Boyer said she’s fighting the city’s contract termination out of “principle” and because it sets a bad precedent for treatment of local contractors.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Boyer told aldermen that the Streets and Grades Committee voted in September to recommend that the full City Council award a contract for construction oversight on the Forest Avenue road project, not realizing Kaskaskia already had the job.

The second contract never made it to the full City Council. If it had been approved, Boyer said, the city would have paid $78,000 to Lochmueller Group, an Evansville, Indiana-based engineering company with Illinois offices. That’s double the $39,000 contract with Kaskaskia.

“It wouldn’t be efficient for the city of Belleville and its residents to pay somebody double for no reason,” Boyer told aldermen.

In an interview, Boyer called the Gregory administration “disorganized,” saying officials asked her to provide the city with copies of its own contracts with Kaskaskia. During Tuesday night’s meeting, Gregory noted that the company failed to comply with the request.

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Mayor Patty Gregory, center, is shown with representatives of the city and its police department on Wednesday night at an awards banquet for the Southern Illinois Law Enforcement Commission and Southern Illinois Area Police Chiefs Association. Welcome to Belleville

Political undertones

After Tuesday night’s meeting, Boyer blamed politics for the termination of Kaskaskia’s contract on the Forest Avenue road project.

“I did a lot of work for the city when Mayor Eckert was here, so of course Mayor Gregory doesn’t like me because she perceives that I helped Mayor Eckert,” Boyer said. “The thing is, engineers help everybody, so that’s just ridiculous.

“But I think that’s what this is all about, either that or they’re discriminating against woman-owned firms. I don’t know which, but they’re not doing this to any other firms.”

During the 2021 campaign, Gregory criticized the Eckert administration for what she characterized as too many “no-bid contracts” being awarded for city projects. Eckert and other officials countered that bidding is illegal for professional services, such as engineering for roadwork.

Last year, the Gregory administration created an evaluation process for engineering companies seeking contracts on city projects and decided to do business with the Top 5. Kaskaskia was ranked sixth.

Boyer said some aldermen told her that city officials had described her company as “difficult to work with.”

“I’m like, ‘We cannot get a meeting with this administration,’” she said. “We email. We call them. They will not schedule a meeting with us. So we’re basically being called ‘difficult’ when they will not even meet with us, and we still have several other contracts with them.”

This story was originally published January 20, 2023 2:42 PM.

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Teri Maddox has been a reporter for 37 years, joining the Belleville News-Democrat in 1990. She also teaches journalism at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. She holds degrees from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and University of Wisconsin-Madison.