Sussex County Community College Moves Forward on Vote for Updated Ethics Policy and Building D Project
NEWTON, NJ – Sussex County Community College is striving to return to its plans to move forward with the Building D Project that was intended to begin during the summer, but was halted due to questions about the bid process and the college’s ethic’s policy. On Monday night, September 22, the college’s board of trustees will vote on an updated ethics policy and revote on the continuation of the engineering portion of the job begun by the Sussex County engineering firm, CP Engineers & Architecture.
Building D is the college’s main academic building where the Student Center is also located. Constructed in 1931, it has required updates to its windows, heating, air conditioning, ventilation, and façade.
“It’s the center of the campus, and an important project,” Sussex County Community College President Dr. Paul Mazur told NJ Inside Scene during an interview.
Mazur said the goal has been to create a student-friendly environment, conducive to learning, and student comfort. Environmentally energy efficient windows, and an updated cooling and heating system would be some of the updates to tackle. Many of the rooms have large windows some that might present a danger to open and close due to the age of the windows and condition. In the summertime, some of the members of the staff dealt with loud air conditioning units in the windows, that they operated via remote control, and when phone calls came in would need to shut the air off, because of the noise level.
The college had hoped to have the Building D Project commenced over the summer with work completion by the Spring 2015 semester, but questions that arose derailed it instead. Once the college is able to move forward, Sussex County Community College hopes to recommence work on the project, Mazur said, that will cause as little disruption as possible to the students.
In the meantime, the college has had to spend approximately $60,000 in legal fees to defend itself, from accusations of wrongdoing, of which they have been cleared.
The Questions About Echelon
Several questions arose regarding the bidding process and if it was executed properly, as well as the affiliation of several members of the board of trustees, with CP Engineers & Architecture.
The college called on the Saiber Law Firm in Florham Park to review the process, the second legal team to review it, outside of the board of trustees’ attorney. In the firm’s report of August 18, and at college’s special board meeting of August 25, after an extensive review, the Saiber firm ruled that the bid process was appropriate.
One question was regarding Echelon itself, to verify why the firm was the sole bidder on the project, and if the college handled the bidding process properly. A question also arose about conflict of interest between Echelon and the firm T.M. Brennan, another general contractor within Sussex County that has also performed work at the college, and that Echelon has previously worked with.
The Saiber Report ruled that the college properly advertised for bids and Echelon was the lone bidder to respond that it was available and interested in the project, though there were 14 bid packages picked up. Saiber stated Echelon was qualified for the job and denoted it the “lowest responsible bidder.” Echelon, a Sussex County based company, has performed other larger construction projects at institutes of learning, including County College of Morris.
“It’s unfortunate Echelon was the only bidder,” Frank Nocella, Executive Vice President and CFO for Sussex County Community College told NJInsideScene.com.
Nocella reiterated that Saiber found no issue with the bidding process.
Saiber also considered the affiliation between Echelon and T.M. Brennan Contractors. An inquiry arose because of Echelon’s submittal of T.M. Brennan’s bid package as its own. Echelon’s sole owner, Jason Colonno, who had worked with T.M. Brennan as a subcontractor for other projects at the college, retrieved the package for Tom Brennan of the firm, considering the company might have been interested in bidding. When the company did not intend to bid, Echelon submitted the bid under its own name.
Another conflict of interest question arose with concern of a conflict between Courter, Kobert & Cohen, the law firm that reviewed the bid process prior to Saiber. John Ursin, the board of trustee’s attorney, now currently with the firm Schenck, Price, Smith & King, LLP, helped Colonno to form Echelon when he was with the Courter firm in May 2008. However, Saiber ruled that the Courter firm did not have a conflict of interest at the time that Echelon submitted the bid in 2014, as it had performed no legal work for Echelon since May 2008.
The Questions About CP Engineers & Architecture
Mazur explained to NJ Inside Scene that the college is permitted to hire professional services companies, such as legal and engineering firms to meet its needs. The board of trustees does not hold a role in choosing a professional services company, such as a legal or engineering firm, though the board can approve or deny jobs that such an organization proposes.
CP Engineers & Architecture introduced themselves to Mazur and Nocella, performing hundreds of hours in pro bono work for the college prior to beginning work on the college’s Master Plan. Mazur said prior to the implementation of the plan from CP, the college only had a concept Master Plan. CP’s version of the Master Plan, he added, varied slightly from the draft plan, and was very detailed. The board of trustees took a vote to hire CP to work on the Master Plan, on a pro bono basis in March 2013. CP Engineers & Architecture has since worked with the college on the Building D Project.
Nocella told NJ Inside Scene, the college has been pleased with the work that CP Engineers & Architecture has offered.
“They’re local, they’re here to service, they’re here immediately,” Nocella said.
Karen DiMaria, the Executive Director of Institutional Advancement, said she was already familiar with CP’s quality of work prior to her tenure at the college, which began in September 2013, after CP was enlisted to work on the school’s Master Plan. DiMaria was the Executive Director at Felician College through 2012, and said by coincidence, she knew the firm when it worked at Felician College. She said CP is versed in higher education projects, and worked on the dorms, gymnasium, and an historic building at the Felician campus.
Three trustees were questioned about their affiliations with CP Engineering & Architecture. One was Glenn T. Gavan, the other Edward J. Leppert, and the third Glen Vetrano.
Gavan had been a member of the board of trustees for six years, and the chairman until the end of August 2014. Gavan announced his resignation, after the media scrutiny, which he said has caused him irreparable harm. Click here for the college press release.
“We are sad to see one our Board of Trustees resign, especially when they have given of their time and energy to make this College a better place for our students,” wrote Kathleen Peterson, the college’s director of marketing, in the email with the press release attachment. “Glenn Gavan has resigned his position as the Board Chair after serving the College for six years on a volunteer basis.”
“After much thought and agonizing over this decision for some time, I have concluded that my ability to serve as Chair and even a Board member, has been irreparably harmed,” Gavan stated in his letter of resignation. “I am very proud and honored to have been a part of this group of volunteers. I am extremely proud of all the good work and positive accomplishments during my tenure. The College must always be the priority.”
Mazur, in response to the letter, in a press release from the college, noted that “With the ongoing distractions from our good work and mission, [Gavan] understands that his resignation will help the College move forward with this important project that was undertaken to better serve our students.”
Gavan voted in favor of CP Engineers’ commencement of work on the Master Plan on a pro bono basis in March 2013. The following month, CP Engineers & Architecture became a client when Gavan was with the McGivney & Kluger law firm. Gavan left the firm and started his own firm in August 2013, and began renting space in the same building where CP Engineers is located in Sparta. Gavan provided business counseling for CP and abstained on all votes as a member of the board of trustees, regarding CP. Gavan now retains his practice in Newton after his lease ended in the Sparta building.
Edward J. Leppart was the second one who came under media fire, and was questioned about his relationship with CP. CP Engineers has used Leppert’s company, ProPay, for payroll services, on a non-contractual monthly basis. Saiber’s investigation showed that Leppert does not handle the day-to-day operations of ProPay and a longtime employee handles it for him. Though CP inquired about accounting services from Leppert’s company, the Leppert Group, and Leppert and returned a proposal regarding the request, no relationship has been forged, or payments made. Leppert, after seeking advice from the board’s counsel, John Ursin, questioning if there could be a conflict at all, advised Leppert he should abstain from voting if he believed he should. Leppert did not determine a conflict because of CP’s use of ProPay, which only accounts for less than a half of a percent of the revenue that ProPay receives from CP. Leppert abstained from the pro bono Master Plan vote, and a vote for the $143,200 contract. All other votes related to CP, Leppert voted in favor, since he did not believe a conflict existed. Leppert did not vote on a $179,670 contract in September 2013, as he was absent from that meeting.
At the August 25 meeting Leppert said he took Ursin’s response to be an opinion, and Leppert said he considered his affiliation with CP to be minor.
Glen Vetrano was another member of the board of trustees who resigned on July 22, following a New Jersey Herald Article from July 11. Click here for the college press release.
“The College would like to share the news that Glen Vetrano, an Executive Member of the Board of Trustees at Sussex County Community College has decided to resign his position,” Peterson wrote in the email with the press release. “In a statement Glen states ‘Sussex County Community College has gone through many changes in the past several years. It is necessary to recognize this institution as a pivotal cornerstone of the community of Sussex County and beyond.’Glen’s dedication to the college over the past 4 years has been instrumental in moving the College forward.”
Vetrano told NJ Inside Scene at the time of his resignation that he had been planning his resignation in April 2014, and discussed that with Senator Steve Oroho (R-24). Governor Chris Christie appointed Vetrano to the board.
Vetrano provided copies of his letters to Oroho and Gavan to NJ Inside Scene.
“Given recent press reports regarding my position, as a member of the Board of Trustees as it relates to construction projects at the college, I would like to clarify published inconsistencies regarding my professional relationship with CP Engineers & Architecture,” Vetrano wrote to Gavan. “As reported in the press, I have not received salary or compensation from CP Engineers based on work related to the college. Unrelated to the college, however, I have in fact received a modest stipend (approximately $13,000 annually) as an advisor to the company since its inception (2012). In this advisory role to CP Engineers, I have not provided any counsel regarding the firm’s dealings with Sussex County Community College.”
Vetrano was quoted in the college press release as stating, “I had expressed a desire to step down before these misleading allegations surfaced. I feel it is appropriate at this time to dispel any conflict of interest as essential construction work begins on the building. The focus should remain on the safety of the students and their educational opportunities, which remains first and foremost.”
As explained in the Saiber Report, Vetrano told the firm that he has known CP Engineers’ Stanley Puszcz for more than 20 years, and in 2012, CP asked Vetrano to be a paid advisor. Vetrano has since carried his own CP Business Card, and received a 1099. Vetrano abstained on the vote regarding the Master Plan, though he voted in favor of the $143,200 contract in June 2013. Gavan and Leppert abstained from the vote, though Vetrano voted. However, Vetrano has stated his vote was accidental, and had considered alerting the board after it was cast and recorded, but did not because the motion was already approved by the time he was asked to vote (Vetrano was second to last to cast a vote, which is taken alphabetically by last name). According to the Saiber Report, Vetrano did not disclose his affiliation with CP to college administrators, Ursin, or other members of the Board of Trustees.
Change in the Ethics Policy – Prior Confusion and Lack of Knowledge with Former Policy
Mazur told NJ Inside Scene that upon his arrival to the college as its president in 2011, an ethics policy was not in place, and a policy was implemented later.
During the August 25 Special Meeting, Star-Ledger reporter Seth Augenstein asked Saiber’s attorney William Maderer in the footage below if any laws were broken. Maderer said he did not suggest that any laws were broken.
In regard to the ethics policy Maderer said on the video, “I think there has to be a new policy adopted. And I think the board members have to be appropriately educated on what that policy is. I think there was some confusion and lack of knowledge as to what the obligations were.”
At the time the votes were taken, Maderer said it was considered a “gray area.”
During the August 25 Special Meeting, which was taped and is in the video footage below, then Vice-Chair Judge Lorraine Parker, stated the practice of abstaining, without stating why there was an abstention, or if there had been a conflict, had been a part of the process for many years, long before any of them seated around the table were board members.
“I think it’s important to realize that,” said Parker referring to the longtime process.
Parker noted the she and Mazur contacted all 19 community colleges in the State of New Jersey, and collected all of the policies that existed for those institutions. At the meeting she stated approximately 15 of the 19 community colleges use the exact same policy that Sussex County Community College has, and implemented the policy exactly the same way that the college has. Two of the 19 colleges, Parker said at the August 25 meeting, currently have no ethics policy.
“It was not a haphazard adoption of a policy,” Parker said at the meeting.
The ethics policy that Saiber recommended, which is up for vote on September 22, will require board members to sign a statement in regard to the ethics policy annually. The newly recommended ethics policy, which is one the state has implemented for non-profit groups, will be more stringent in how board members must approach the topic of conflict of interest.
DiMaria said with the college’s adoption of this new ethics policy, other community colleges are likely to follow Sussex County Community College’s lead, and update their policies.
In terms of forms to declare income, Mazur told NJ Inside Scene, that forms vary by state, and for example, when he worked in New York, the income forms sought extensive information. In New Jersey, Mazur said the form for the volunteer board of trustees to complete contains “yes” and “no” questions, which asks for a source if the question’s response is “yes” but does not require a dollar amount be furnished.
Echelon’s Bid Considered Reasonable, CP’s Proposals Described as Fair, With CP’s Costs 25 Percent Lower Than Normal
Though Echelon’s bid came in at $850,000 higher than CP’s estimate of $2,118,738, Construction Claims Group (CCG), a firm that Saiber hired to review the process, said that Echelon’s bid was considered “reasonable.” CCG noted there were other costs included, not in the CP Estimate, such as temporary facilities required, brick masonry repairs, and custom work for each window. Cracks that might occur during demolition was another cost that Echelon factored in. Another concern was the condensate line might not be as easily routed, an additional point figured into the Echelon bid. CP concurred that Echelon’s costs were reasonable.
CCG also provided a separate opinion of CP’s eight proposals. Click here to read the full analysis of the CP proposals. Though trustee Daniel Perez questioned CP’s proposals versus Echelon’s bid extensively at the August 25 meeting, the report from CCG was already released for the special meeting (the report was released on August 21) and Russell E Berner of CCG considered all of CP’s proposals fair, and even lower than other firms that he has reviewed in his career.
“I reviewed each of the above proposals,” Berner wrote in his independent analysis, never having worked with or for CP Engineers. He also did not know the principals. “Based on my experience evaluating construction matters and disputes, I believe that each proposal is proper and that the quotation falls within the range of costs that I would expect an engineer in the industry would charge for the same work. If anything, the proposals are slightly low in cost than would be provided by other firms.”
“The CCG report not only found that all of CP Engineers’ proposals were fair but that the firm’s overall fees were below industry standards and that our markup for the costs of subcontracted consultants and equipment was 25 percent below what is typically charged,” said Rich Levasque, Vice President, Public Affairs at MWW, on behalf of CP Engineers.
The Current State of the Building D Project
In order to proceed with the Echelon portion of the project, the college is awaiting fund transfers that the School Board of Estimates must authorize in the amount of $726,000. These funds were given to the college as part of the state’s Go Bond. Originally, Sussex County Community College earmarked these funds for repairs in the B Building, where administrative offices are located. However, the D building repairs are now considered a greater priority.
Nocella said that another $769,000 had been permitted to be set aside in a holding account by state statute for capital maintenance projects, which will permit the college to fill in the gap for the remainder of the monies needed for the project, and must also be transferred to begin Echolon’s part of the job.
According to Saiber’s Investigative Report, Echelon could hold the college liable for damages if not signing the contract by today, September 19. This date was previously extended for 60 days. DiMaria told NJ Inside Scene that Echelon has now extended its contract date through October 19.
Saiber has suggested that two of the CP Engineer votes be recast, because there was not an adequate quorum (a minimum of six members), excluding those who abstained, at the time that the votes were taken for votes on March 26 and December 13, 2013. These votes will be recast on September 22. The March 26, 2013 job has already been completed and the vote will be for the record only. The December 13 vote was for CP Engineers’ proposal for $346,000 for engineering work on Building D.
When NJ Inside Scene asked Mazur if the vote does not come out in favor of CP, Mazur said he did not wish to speculate.
“We will cross that bridge when we come to it,” Mazur said.
To date, Nocella has noted that the college has spent $295,000 of the $450,000 that CP Engineers proposed in engineering costs.
Should the college be required to restart, those would be costs the college must front once again, to recommence the project from scratch. The college has additionally spent $4,000 for review from the Courter firm, and $54,000 for Saiber’s review.
Sussex County Community College has voluntarily sent the Saiber report to the State Attorney General’s Office for review.
“At Sussex County Community College, we make every effort to be transparent, and accountable,” Mazur wrote in a message on the college’s website.
The college looks to return to normalcy after what has been described by DiMaria as a “distraction from our mission.”
“I wouldn’t start all over,” said Kevin Duffy, student and non-voting member of the board of trustees on the August 25 meeting, about the situation, “but that’s just me. Because not only do we have to start, we are also looking at, as they [Saiber] stated, a very large loss if Echelon is able to prove the amount of other jobs that they lost profit on.”
Editor’s Note: NJInsideScene.com’s parent company, JJ Avenue Productions, has worked previously with both CP Engineers and Glenn Gavan on a limited basis, assisting with press releases.
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