Dirty Pool

As the Bayview waits for a rebuilt MLK pool, the project, a stated mayoral priority, keeps gobbling money and time--making it the prototypical city contracting fiasco.

"I am leaving Public Works at the end of July," he said earlier last month. "Obviously, this pool job is a contributing factor, but it's not the only reason; it's not just the pool. I want to leave the city in good grace, not to be a muckraker. But you can see why I'm looking for new employment; probably not with this city, though."

When asked whether city employees use technicalities to steer contracts to particular firms, Alameida turned thoughtful. "Maybe that's why I'm having so much grief," he mused. "Things have changed in the last few years. Every mayor has his own style. I do not know if there is any accountability in this system. I tried to work autonomously.

"I'm the fall guy now."

Alameida said that mistake number one on the pool job was the hiring of Chiang's firm, even though the company had botched the Richmond gym project, and had had a history of problems with subcontractors. "All the automation in the world could not save [Chiang's schedule]," Alameida said. "Nor all the city supervision, either."

Alameida said that he wanted to throw Chiang off the job a year ago. He was dissuaded from doing so by Department of Public Works Director Lee and City Engineer Kelly, who, he said, "kept the pool job under a microscope."

"I wanted to put the bonding company on notice, so that the bonding company could finish the job," Alameida sighed.

A contractor cannot bid on a Public Works job without buying insurance -- a performance bond that guarantees that, if the contractor must be fired for good cause, the bonding company will finish the job, at no extra cost to the city.

Tim Mikolajewski, a vice president of Safeco, the company that insured the King pool job, says that if San Francisco were to fire Chiang's firm, the bonding company would be bound to deliver a finished pool for the contract price. But until it was contacted for this story, Safeco did not know there were serious problems on the MLK pool job -- in no small part because city officials have hidden those problems from the bonding firm.

Safeco has been sending periodic "audit requests" to the city to determine if the pool is being completed on time, and if the contractor is paying subcontractors. Mikolajewski seemed unhappy to learn that the following words were handwritten across the top of Safeco's last audit request: "Do not reply -- file." He also was less than thrilled to learn, from a reporter, that subcontractors who claim they haven't been paid for work they've done on the pool have filed $102,000 in liens against Chiang's company, and the city.

"I am surprised that with Chiang being a year behind schedule, and with the liens, that the city would not reply to our audit request," says Mikolajewski. "Liens and delays are not positive signs. Our file has no record of substantial problems. We could stop the work, though. The sooner we find out, the less money it costs us to finish the job."

Kelly, the city engineer, gave this explanation of the bonding situation: "Six months ago a decision was made not to reply anymore to audit requests from bonding companies." He declined to elaborate.

Kelly said that the decision not to fire Chiang involved race. Public Works wants to hire racial minorities from the communities in which projects are being constructed, Kelly explained, but in this case the use of minority firms worked badly. "C.M. Construction has no leadership," Kelly said. "Things spiraled out of control. Subs didn't perform, or went out of business. They were Asians doing work in a black neighborhood; the schedule got set back because we had to include minorities."

Mayor Brown's press secretary, P.J. Johnston, said that the mayor is disappointed the project has taken so long. "He tried to instill a sense of urgency into the Department of Public Works and the Recreation and Park Department," said Johnston, who referred other questions to Elizabeth Goldsmith, executive director of the Recreation and Park Commission.

Goldsmith and Gordon Chin, president of the Recreation and Park Commission, did not respond to repeated telephone requests seeking comment on the pool.

In April 2000, Mayor Brown held a meeting in his office with Robert Chiang and the city employees and contractors responsible for supervising him. After the meeting, Chiang wrote a letter to the Department of Public Works saying that he had been instructed by the Mayor's Office to hire "a community liaison for additional community relations, additional public outreach to expedite the project and [to] help mitigate the various issues involving Bayview residents."

Chiang informed the department that he had, therefore, hired a "consultant" for a $100,000 flat fee.

Although the city paid Chiang the $100,000, city officials claim to have no record of what consultant Chiang is using, or what that consultant has been paid, or what the consultant has actually done. During interviews at the pool construction site, SF Weekly learned that the public relations consultant is Dr. Caesar Churchwell, a dentist. Last year, Churchwell served as president of the Black Leadership Forum, an umbrella group of African-American community organizations. In a telephone interview, Churchwell said he does not work with a consulting firm, nor does he own one. He said he works for Chiang as "a liaison between the city and the community." He said he did not get $100,000 for his work, but declined to reveal how much he was paid.

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