Piper: Expert assessment of project needed

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

District 1 Commissioner Everett Piper last week defended the hiring of a new owner’s representative for a county construction project on the basis that an expert is necessary to help evaluate the project.

“We need an expert to help assess the situation,” Piper said, as he responded to questions about the hiring from County Assessor Ed Quinton Jr.

“You can’t fix the dog if you don’t have a vet,” Piper also said. The Board of County Commissioners had voted the previous week (on Feb. 21) to choose Dalton Higgins, a past associate of Piper, as the new owner’s representative. The board on Feb. 27 was following up by approving the signing of a resolution to the same effect as the Feb. 21 vote. Piper has been designated the board's point person on the courthouse annex project.

The association between Higgins and Piper goes back to Piper’s prior employment as president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, in Bartlesville. The contract of Direct 2 Completion, or D2C, as the owner’s representative company for the Osage County courthouse annex project expired at the end of January.

Piper has publicly characterized the expiration of the D2C contract as a result of the company deciding it did not wish to continue with the annex project. Mike Owen, an official of D2C, said the firm had wanted to inquire about continuing but had been unable to get on a meeting agenda.

Owen provided to the Journal-Capital copies of emails that indicated the company’s desire to continue with the project. In a Jan. 12 email addressed to County Clerk Robin Slack (who disseminates the weekly agenda for the county board), as well as to Piper and District 3 Commissioner Charlie Cartwright, Owen recommended that the county board designate one of its members as a representative to provide direction in future project team meetings. The board designated Piper, and dealt with that appointment based on items on its Jan. 17 and Jan. 23 agendas.

Owen also recommended an agenda item for the Jan. 17 or Jan. 23 meeting, "for D2C to extend and continue services as owner representative." No such item was included in those meeting agendas as publicly distributed.

Owen additionally provided the Journal-Capital with a copy of a Jan. 19 email that he sent to Piper, in which Owen said that D2C would review documentation at the end of the programming and design stage for the courthouse annex and “then present all findings.” The language of the email clearly anticipated continuing involvement by D2C beyond January 2023.

With regard to expertise to assess the courthouse annex project, Owen said that he has been involved with perhaps 15 county building projects in his career of 30-plus years – projects ranging from courthouse renovations to a new county jail to E-911 call centers. The Washington County Jail was one of the projects on which he worked, Owen said.

Quinton asked during his conversation Feb. 27 with Piper if the county can still get out of an agreement to build the new Osage County courthouse annex.

District 2 Commissioner Steve Talburt said that if Higgins finds the annex project is “not doable,” then Higgins’s agreement with the county would end at that point.

An important element of what is being wrestled with is the apparent desire of Piper and his colleagues on the new Board of County Commissioners (Piper and Cartwright took office Jan. 3) to limit the amount of funding available for the annex to no more than a little over $10 million. The previous board had not put in place any such limit.

The Journal-Capital asked Quinton about his question to Piper regarding the possibility of getting out of an agreement to build the annex and he replied as follows: "I was just asking Commissioner Piper a question, because I truly want what is best for the county as does he. I just do not know what that is yet and I want to make sure all of our options are still open until everyone comes to an agreement on what is best for the county."

Randall Jones, the previous District 1 commissioner (Piper defeated him), said he thinks the new board is entirely within its rights to kill the annex project, but it shouldn't pretend that funding isn't available to complete the work.