The bid dispute between CH2M Hill and AECOM over Miami-Dade County's pending $1.6-billion sewer-repairs project could be nearing resolution, based on the recent report from the county's Inspector General. That's because the report, published in late April, mostly clears the now-top-ranked bidder, AECOM, of wrongdoing. 

As ENR reported previously, the case boiled down to a dispute over numbers. CH2M Hill alleged AECOM exaggerated its experience by inflating the number of times it served in certain related roles. This was important, CH2M Hill asserted, since a false statement could disqualify a firm from winning a contract.

South Florida public-television station WPBT posted this report on the situation surrounding Miami-Dade County's sewers problem to Youtube.

In the end, however, the Miami-Dade IG couldn't get the numbers behind CH2M Hill's allegations to add up. Interestingly, the cause of that, says the IG, was industry's varying definitions for certain terms. Essentially, as the Miami-Dade IG summarizes here, the claims boiled down to a numbers game over experience related to work on consent-decree programs.

"CH2M attempts to deduce that mathematically AECOM could not possibly be the prime on 28 Consent Decrees. First, CH2M shows that, according to the US EPA, there are 56 Consent Decrees nationally under the Clean Water Act. Next, CH2M states that it has had direct involvement in 28 of them. Ergo, AECOM, if it too claims the number 28, must be the prime on the remaining 28—which, CH2M implies, is clearly not the case."

That's a pretty simple claim to understand, and, potentially, to verify. But the county's investigation found that the accusation's apparent implication—that CH2M Hill led 28 of the 56 programs—didn't hold up under scrutiny, either. Referring to a chart that breaks down roles performed on the programs, the IG report states:

"However, CH2M, using its own supplied chart, only checks off nine Consent Decrees where it represents that it is fulfilling the program management role. The other 19 attributions are for program support and projects where the jurisdiction is under a Consent Decree. Thus, CH2M, in providing its own credentials for comparative purposes, acknowledges that having direct prime involvement on a Consent Decree can be more than program management; it includes service for program support and projects. In other words, just because there are 56 consent decree jurisdictions, doesn’t mean that there can only be 56 prime contracts."

According to the report, the issue is further complicated by the industry's varying use of terminology. After digging into the industry's use of certain terms, such as "program management," "program manager" and "consent decree program," the county found considerable room for ambiguity.

Stated the IG's report: "During our investigation ... it became clear that both [firms] used [industry] terms without definition, creating ambiguity" and often "leaving it to the reader or listener to apply his/her own definition or context to these words and phrases." Moreover, it goes on:

"We find that there is flexibility in the use of certain terms and phrases within the industry. There is no categorically right way or wrong way; no black or white choice, just shades of grey. The question then, is to what extent the respective parties have indulged in literary license to market their experiences and qualifications?" 

The report also includes an interesting and extensive attempt at defining the term "consent decree program," with the IG ultimately settling upon a rather expansive definition. (Interested readers can find the full report here.) 

In the end, the Inspector General dismissed all of the 15 or more complaints against AECOM, except one. That could possibly clear the way for the mayor and county commissioners to move forward with a contract award. But before they do that, the IG had some final words of wisdom to share.

"Whether or not this finding impacts the awarding of this contract to one vendor or the other is clearly up to the Mayor and ultimately the Board of County Commissioners. Either way, the process is in need of reform. During our investigation, we spoke with many jurisdictions about their procurement processes for professional services. We could improve our system by researching the solutions implemented by other jurisdictions. Moreover, this investigation demonstrates that the process could benefit greatly with the addition of industry-suitable definitions and other guidelines."

Sounds like a good idea to me. What do you think? Let us hear your thoughts.