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Council gets cold feet on change orders

Reversing a decision it made in April, the Port Orchard City Council has decided it doesn’t want city engineer Larry Curles to have unlimited ability to give the go-ahead on change orders, although the council is still not sure what kind of authority it wants Curles to have.

On Monday, the council voted 4-2 to reconsider a decision it made at its last council meeting giving formal permission for Curles to preliminarily approve emergency change orders on construction projects.

However, once the earlier decision was made invalid, the council appeared unsure of how to proceed. Councilman Ron Rider, who made the motion for reconsideration, said he was uncomfortable with giving any staff member such broad authority and would rather hold an emergency meeting of the council every time a change order was required.

Councilman John Clauson, who voted against invalidating the earlier council decision, said the alternative — having the contractor sit around doing nothing while the council tried to find a way to vote — was equally unacceptable.

“You can sit here and try and micromanage everything that goes on,” Clauson said. “I think that’s crazy.”

City attorney Loren Combs said the power the council had given to Curles was not a simple matter of letting him write a check. Allowing a city employee to give contract workers the go-ahead to do extra work was actually part of a relatively complicated legal precedent in which the employee didn’t actually take the council’s place, but rather offered a “proceed at your own risk” suggestion.

The most Curles would be able to offer, Combs explained, was the promise to strenuously lobby the council to approve the extra work. It would then be up to the contractor to decide whether he or she wanted to proceed.

Under the legal guidelines that govern such recommendations, the contractor could send the city a bill for any work done that benefited the city, even if the council later rejected the change order. However, the contractor would have to prove the work benefited the city and couldn’t point to Curles’ suggestion as a clear directive from the council.

The whole system, Combs continued, has been informally practiced by the city for decades. Technically, the mayor doesn’t have the authority to order one ream of paper without the council’s permission but, unofficially, the council has always accepted such actions as a necessary part of running the city.

Combs warned the council against crippling the city by requiring any and all change orders to come before the council, regardless of how minor they might be.

“Past practice, Larry has always felt comfortable making in-the-field adjustments,” Combs said. “I’ve seen cities shut down for this very reason — a conflict between the executive and legislative branches.”

Curles originally asked for his change order authority to become formal because the city was in the midst of several major construction projects, including the multi-million-dollar expansion of the Karcher Creek Sewage Treatment Plant.

He said he didn’t feel comfortable making big-budget change order recommendations to the contractors without the council’s formal OK.

The council appeared to still be keeping this request in mind, but several members were still unwilling to let Curles sign off on six-figure work orders.

In the end, the council voted unanimously to let Curles proceed as he always has, but cap his authority at $15,000. Anything over that, the council will have to call an emergency meeting and approve the change itself.

The council also agreed to deal with this issue more fully at the next meeting and perhaps draft a better compromise that will alow construction to proceed slowly without jeopardizing city funds in any way.

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