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.

Kelly said he approved spending $100,000 for the previously unidentified consultant, even though Alameida, the architect in charge of the project, refused to sign off on it. "The mayor was concerned about the project," Kelly said, "because the community felt it was unfair that an Asian contractor had been given the job, and there are gang activities and shootings in Bayview-Hunters Point."

Community activist Viltz -- who has led neighborhood complaints about the pool project, and who would seem to be an obvious target of any public relations campaign -- says she has never seen or heard of Churchwell.

As the MLK pool project cranked up in 1998, Gordon Choy, manager of the contract administration division of Public Works, e-mailed Tamra Winchester, his counterpart at the Human Rights Commission, these words: "This project, like so many recent ones, has political overtones in that the mayor promised the community that a pool will be built."

One might reasonably detect a hint of frustration in Choy's remark. After all, politically sensitive projects dotend to be micromanaged by high-ranking officials who give underlings no end of headaches. After all, politicians who come and go with every election cycle cannot possibly know the details of public contracting as well as the professionals at the Public Works Department. After all, there have been many books written about the tendency of bureaucrats to humor elected officials -- and then do precisely what the bureaucracy desires.

It may be faintly unusual that the MLK pool became such an extraordinary sinkhole of time and money after the mayor had expressly made it one of the highest priorities of his administration, but the way the pool project swirled out of control is not remarkable. It is typical of the city contracting process.

For those who know the city system, it is entirely unremarkable that great chunks of the pool budget went to people and firms with connections to the Department of Public Works. For example, Gerson/Overstreet Architects, Don Todd Associates, and Business Development Inc. have all held open-ended, multimillion-dollar contracts with Public Works for many years. The city regularly pays out many millions of dollars in this fashion, thereby losing the benefit of soliciting competitive prices from other firms.

The MLK pool fiasco has also helped keep Public Works architects and construction managers in clover. At least a half-dozen Public Works architects and engineers were assigned to manage and monitor the pool job. Those employees are paid directly out of the funding of the projects that they manage, which means they are not necessarily interested in bringing projects in on budget or on time. In fact, the bureaucratic incentives often work in just the opposite direction.

Anyone who has read a newspaper over the last year or so knows of allegations that the city Human Rights Commission has steered contracts to favored bidders, and away from those without the needed supplies of political influence.

In the end, the MLK pool fiasco is unusual in only two significant ways.

The project stands out among city construction failures because the prime contractor on the project drew attention to itself by being so flagrantly incompetent and apparently improper that a respected city architect felt it necessary to flee city employment in midcareer.

And that architect, Don Alameida, stands out because he -- apparently alone among those responsible for the project -- drew the line at giving $100,000 of the public's wealth to a man without a name, while the children of Bayview-Hunters Point played, for another summer, in the street, and not the water.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.

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