CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois has pushed the reset button on its plans to renovate a critical campus building after a state board criticized the university's handling of how it initially awarded the contract to a Champaign firm with ties to a UI employee.
University officials are again beginning the process for seeking proposals from architectural and engineering firms for work on the Natural History Building, a 120-year-old building at 1301 W. Green St. An ad on the Illinois Higher Education Procurement Bulletin is expected this week.
Partially closed since 2010, the building has been slated for a much-needed renovation of its classrooms, laboratories and offices. The university awarded a contract to BLDD Architects of Champaign: first for a $368,000 conceptual plan in 2010, then over $4 million for further design and management work. The second amendment was on hold pending a decision from state procurement authorities who review state contracts.
Earlier this spring the Illinois Procurement Policy Board raised questions about the contract after learning a university architect who manages construction projects, Jill Maxey, was previously employed at the firm, and her husband, Bruce Maxey, is currently a principal at BLDD. The firm disclosed the relationship to the UI, but the procurement board did not learn of it until this spring, more than a year after the firm beat out 32 others for the contract.
The procurement board this summer voted to void the contract and, under fire from state authorities, university trustees last month agreed. UI officials said they would review options with state procurement officials on how to proceed.
The UI plans to post a new request soliciting interest from architectural firms on the state's procurement bulletin this week, according to Mike Bass, the UI's senior associate vice president.
"We want to move as quickly as can," Bass said.
"There was no pay to play here," said Bill Black, the Danville alderman and former state representative who sits on the procurement board. BLDD disclosed the relationship, and the university said Maxey was not involved in the project.
However, \in the procurement board's investigation, emails surfaced showing Jill Maxey was kept in the loop on the project, Black said. That prompted members to believe the contract should be rebid or go to the next lowest bidder, Black said.
"We're still trying to recover from the six and a half years of (former and now convicted) Gov. Rod Blagojevich," he said, and "people are going to have to be cautious," about the perception of a conflict of interest.
The UI eventually opted to start over.
Aaron Carter, executive director of the procurement policy board, called the move "the only way to ensure fairness" for all companies who supplied proposals to the university, and "the best way to ensure everybody had a fair chance at the contract," he said.
Carter said he expected all state agencies and institutions, not only universities, will treat conflicts of interest "with more of a priority."
"They're going to ensure the (procurement) board and chief procurement office get a good look at the conflict so they can be vetted properly," he said.
As a result of the scrutiny of the UI's hiring of BLDD, Ben Bagby, the state's chief procurement office for higher education, is now drafting a conflict-of-interest policy that seeks to clarify what should happen if someone in a university procurement office has a relationship with a potential vendor to the university. Bagby said he expects the draft to be finalized soon.
In the meantime, Jill Maxey in recent weeks has been reassigned and is no longer working in procurement on campus.
UI trustees initially approved a $70 million budget for the Natural History Building renovation, but with each month the project is delayed the cost is expected to go up by about $91,000, according to Bass.
The new ad essentially asks interested architectural and engineering firms to submit information about their qualifications for working on the project. Work would entail reviewing the conceptual plan already completed by BLDD (and which the university now owns), making any changes, if necessary, and then developing schematics, design development, preparing construction documents and overseeing construction, according to Bass. The ad is expected to be posted for a minimum of about two weeks.
A university committee of about four to five people, none of whom served on the previous selection committee, will review the firms' submissions, narrow the list and make a decision, according to Bass.