The basketball floor and scoreboard are in place inside the refurbished State Farm Arena. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Atlanta stadium authority seeks tighter contracting policy

The board of the city of Atlanta’s stadium authority, whose portfolio includes State Farm Arena and a handful of other public facilities, voted Friday to develop a tighter policy for when contracts must receive the board’s approval.

The move comes about two months after a joint Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News investigation revealed the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority hired the highest bidder to oversee a pair of high-profile construction projects, and that those contract awards did not come before the board for approval. Following Friday’s board action, the leader of the authority said he plans to draft a new policy for board approval early next year.

VIDEO: Previous coverage of this issue

There's a dispute over upgrades to State Farm Arena and Zoo Atlanta, and it involves the public agency notifying the board before awarding big contracts.

In October, the AJC and Channel 2 reported Texas-based construction giant Con-Real was awarded a contract in June 2017 to oversee arena renovations with a bid of $2.4 million, nearly double their sole competitor’s proposal. Con-Real also won a construction management contract this past June for a project at Zoo Atlanta with a $1.4 million bid that was three-times the low bidder.

Authority officials said the contract awards did not violate the agency’s rules because the work was to be paid for out of project budgets and not the authority’s budget. But the process raised the ire of Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens and Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis.

Ellis, who is also a recreation authority board member, made the motion at Friday’s board meeting to order the authority’s new executive director, Kerry Stewart, to develop a comprehensive policy. The motion was approved.

The new policy would dictate a minimum dollar amount required for board approval and detail how the board should be briefed for smaller contracts.

Stewart said he would review the practices of similar agencies as he drafts the new policy. He joined the authority in September and was not employed by the agency when the construction management contracts were awarded.

Ellis said taxpayers and the board are owed greater transparency about major contracts, including the Con-Real contracts.

“Contracts of that size and scope should have had public discussion and a board vote,” he said.

Con-Real won its first contract with the authority — a $100,000 consulting gig — in April 2017, days before its then-chief, Keisha Lance Bottoms, resigned as her campaign for mayor gained momentum. Bottoms also was a city councilwoman at the time.

In June of that year, after Bottoms left the authority, Con-Real won its arena renovation bid. Days later, campaign finance records show Con-Real CEO Gerald Alley donated $3,900 to Bottoms’ campaign and he held a fundraiser for her that August.

The zoo contract was approved in June after Bottoms became mayor.

The mayor’s office has said she had no control over contracting decisions made after she left the agency, and “no favors have ever been asked and none have been given in the awarding of any contracts.”

The city controls six of the authority’s nine board seats.

Con-Real serves as the owner’s representative on both construction projects, in place to ensure contractors complete all work at the agreed upon quality and price. Con-Real vets all change orders to make sure any additional charges are justified.

Alley has said in both cases the authority decided his company was the most capable bidder.

A Con-Real representative said Friday his company had discovered disallowed expenditures in the $192.5 million State Farm Arena renovation, saving taxpayers more than $7 million.

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