The company reviewing Calumet City’s bids wins most of those contracts
The Farnsworth Group, the engineering and architecture firm appointed by Calumet City Mayor Thaddeus Jones to be the city engineer, plays an integral role in helping the city choose which companies should win publicly funded construction contracts.
But a months-long investigation into Calumet City’s spending habits showed that the company also wins a significant portion of engineering and architecture contracts, raising questions about possible conflicts of interest.
Farnsworth was selected by Jones, also a state representative, to take over the role of city engineer from Robinson Engineering, the firm employed by his predecessor, Michael Markiewicz-Qualkinbush.
Since May 1, 2021, part of Farnsworth’s duties include assisting with the bid selection process for construction projects in Calumet City.
“(For) construction contracts, we will help the city put them out to bid and then we will help vet the bids and then say this is the lowest qualified bidder,” Farnsworth Senior Director Ken Chastain said during an Aug. 17 meeting. interview.
Farnsworth also bids on engineering and architectural work in which her company specializes, although it does not bid on construction projects.
“We help employees with technical information so they can go out and request qualifications from professional firms like Farnsworth Group,” Chastain said. “But not necessarily us.”
Chastain confirmed that Farnsworth is in the running for some contracts for which they provide technical information.
“We have to compete,” he added.
The Daily Southtown newspaper obtained records showing that from May 2021, when Farnsworth was hired, until late August 2023, when documents were requested, the city spent $2.64 million on engineering and architectural work.
Of that amount, $2.06 million, or 78%, went to Farnsworth. This figure appears to include both bidding consulting and professional services work, although the split between the two roles is not clear in the numbers. Chastain and a city spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment and clarification on this point.
Five other companies shared the remaining 22% of architecture and engineering spending. The next highest-grossing company – which took in $306,618 or 11.6% of the total – is Mott McDonald. Matt Berger, now a senior engineering manager at Farnsworth, was a senior project manager at Mott McDonald until January 2022, according to a 2020 presentation and his LinkedIn post.
Of the 144 items of architectural and engineering expenditure on work done by Farnsworth, 32 were worth more than $25,000. Illinois law requires municipalities with fewer than 500,000 people to have an open advertising process before the city council selects the lowest viable bid for work of more than $25,000, unless the council votes to waive the advertising process.
In the August interview, Chastain said the bid selection process for the contracts Farnsworth is competing for is very transparent.
“We don’t have any contract to do projects without the city council discussing and voting on it, you know,” he said. “(The City Council has) a committee that reviews those professional firms and then city staff reviews them. They make a recommendation to the City Council and the City Council selects.”
But the first wing, D. Michael Navarette, 2nd Ward Ald. Monet Wilson, 6th Ward Ald. James Patton and City Clerk Nyota Figgs say a transparent bidding process is not taking place.
“The first time we find out about a lot of things is when they show up on the City Council agenda,” Patton said.
Some contracts are submitted to bid through a formal process. For other contracts, the bidding process is waived for good cause, although Navarrete said sometimes the bidding process will occur without the city council’s knowledge.
For some other contracts, aldermen say the City Council knows who got the bid when it appears on the monthly list of bills to vote on, after the contractor has already been selected.
“Our city engineers, who are hired, do a lot of things that we don’t hear about until we see the bills,” Navarrete said. “We must know what our engineering company is doing and we must follow the same path.”
This process is different than it was when Robinson Engineering was the city engineer, said Patton, who worked for the city during the previous administration under a variety of titles including director of purchasing and personnel. When bids are sought for contracts or when the city seeks a particular service, the bids will be advertised in the newspaper, he said.
“Bids must be submitted to the city clerk’s office at a certain time on a certain day and then there will be a public opening for bids,” Patton said.
The Department Head will recommend any services needed by submitting a proposal to the Mayor and explaining the recommendation. The City Council, which is informed of the process every step of the way, will then take the final vote, he said.
“In this administration, none of that has happened, to my knowledge,” Patton said. “The council was certainly never informed of who the lowest bidder was or any of the information regarding the bidding process at all.”
Figes, who was city clerk under the previous mayor and city engineer, said Robinson will occasionally be hired to do certain jobs in addition to consulting. But she said they were not winning contracts at the same pace, and that was most clearly stated when Robinson received offers.
She also described that when the city solicited bids from other companies, the sealed bids were opened publicly and then discussed by the City Council. She explained that Robinson did not run the operation the same way Farnsworth does now.
The City Council sometimes balks at the lack of transparency. In one recent case, after a request for proposal to build a bike path was posted, Navarrete says he was shocked to see that on May 12, Farnsworth had been awarded a contract to build the path despite the City Council not being involved in the rigorous selection process. He asked about the decision-making process that led to Farnsworth being selected.
What he found was that Farnsworth got credit for being the company that knew best how to build the city’s infrastructure because they were the city’s architects. This caused the two minority-owned businesses to lose what figures showed to be $62,692.68 in two payments, according to Navarrete and public records.
“To build an asphalt bike path, you don’t need to know Calumet City’s infrastructure,” he said. “How is any other company going to win?”
Navarrete revealed that he worked for one of these two minority companies until 2020. He requested that their names not be revealed.
The three council members who most often question the contract award process have a say in whether or not those contracts will be awarded. But there are seven people on the council, which sometimes puts them in the minority.
There are other reasons for sometimes being reluctant to question the process, including fear of administration retaliation.
Patton says his business suffered when he filed a complaint in 2021 against the city attorney and Jones sent an email to his colleagues in the State Assembly warning them against using Patton’s consulting work. Patton says this email caused him to lose three clients.
“Every time I try to do something, it affects my personal life. It affects my professional life,” he said. “There are seven of us who were elected to do something.”
Patton, Wilson and Figgs have other personal, legal and political issues with the Jones administration and the city. Patton lost his bid to challenge Jones’ ability to be both a state representative and mayor. Jones is under a federal investigation related to the use of campaign funds, in part because Patton and others filed complaints.
Wilson expressed opposition to his administration and lost to Jones in the 2022 Democratic primary for state representative in a landslide, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. Patton supported Wilson in this race.
Figes has filed lawsuits against Jones, including one accusing him of removing some of her duties. The city sued Figes for destruction of public records.
Chastain, Borger, Jones, 3rd Ward Ald. DeAndre Tillman, 7th Ward Ald. Anthony Smith and representatives for Mott McDonald and Robinson Engineering also did not respond to multiple attempts to get comment on the spending, and 5th Ward Ald. DeJon Gardner referred questions to spokesman Sean Howard. Howard did not respond to requests for comment.
4th District Raymond Williams said he was not familiar with the process that went into awarding the contracts.
“I have a life outside of City Hall, so I don’t read everything at all… in terms of contracts,” Williams said. He said his experience relates to public safety, given his job as police chief at South Suburban College.
He said bid envelopes are opened publicly as they were when Robinson was the city engineer. But he refused to provide any proof of this, saying: “I have a day job.”
The Daily Southtown tried to obtain proof that bidding and advertising processes were followed, but a Freedom of Information Act request for the bidding process for several of Farnsworth’s most lucrative jobs went unanswered for more than a month.
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“They shouldn’t be running the operation,” Patton said of Farnsworth. “No one outside of city government should be running this process.”
Navarrete also said Farnsworth’s business itself was not the problem, calling it a “very capable company.” But the main issue is how contracts are awarded.
John Jackson, a visiting professor at the Paul Simon Institute at Southern Illinois University, reviewed the described process and said he believes the relationship between Farnsworth and city government is “problematic.”
“I think the average citizen might see this as a conflict of interest because this company, Farnsworth, seems to be playing two roles,” Jackson said. “It seems to me that you are playing one of two roles but you cannot play both without there being at least some semblance of a conflict of interest.”
Jackson also said the City Council should have more hands-on say in selecting bids rather than voting on whether or not to pay a predetermined dollar amount.
“There may be benefits to having a trusted partner who knows the city well and takes on some of the projects as well as consulting,” said Alyssa Kaplan, executive director of Reform Illinois, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization that tracks political behavior. “But the fact that Farnsworth is taking such a huge portion of the city’s project funds and the apparent lack of transparency around the entire process raises serious questions.”