Ascension council approves engineering contract after debate

In a departure from its standard practice in hiring engineering firms, the Ascension Parish Council chose Volkert Inc. to design a $10 million to $15 million connector providing a secondary access road to the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.

The council’s 7-3 vote came after a debate about whether to stick with its long-standing practices or apply other analyses to the rankings of an administration review committee that recommended a different firm.

The council regularly hires only the top-ranked firm from a professional selection committee on all manner of projects, though administration officials generally tell the council any of the top three-ranked firms would be a good choice.

However, the council this time chose second-ranked Volkert over top-ranked Neel-Schaffer to oversee work required to get the Edenborne Connector project ready for a federal grant application this fall.

The vote comes just more than a week after Volkert and its 50-50 joint venture partner, Manchac Consulting Group Inc., narrowly missed out on being in the top three to oversee the design and construction of a $43 million regional sewer service in the parish.

The contract for the sewer project went to the top-ranked firm, GSA Consulting Engineers Inc.

No one on the council argued on Thursday that Volkert would be a bad choice for the work. The top four firms for the project were separated by just seven points in the rankings.

Neel-Schaffer led Volkert overall by two points and got the administration’s recommendation as the top-ranked firm. But Volkert had a leading ranking from three of the five reviewing engineers, score sheets say.

Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, a retired LSU poultry science professor, has begun using statistical analyses on the committee’s rankings.

He found firms were statistically tied in many cases. He added that his analysis showed there was only 0.4-point difference between Volkert and Neel-Schaffer.

Given that information, Satterlee said he reviewed proposals from the nine companies and spoke to company representatives to make his decision.

“By a small margin, I think Volkert gets the nod over Neel-Schaffer,” he said.

Just moments earlier, Councilwoman Teri Casso had argued that not following the committee’s recommendation called into question the process’s integrity and allows the public to believe politics plays a part in the decision.

She added after Satterlee spoke that each project being reviewed is not a statistical analysis but a competition. “And for me, the winner is the winner on the day he won,” Casso said.

Former Ascension Parish state Rep. John “Juba” Diez, who was Volkert’s representative at the Parish Courthouse in Donaldsonville, was congratulated by the representative of a competing firm and others sitting next to him after the vote.

Councilmen Randy Clouatre, Oliver Joseph, Dempsey Lambert, Todd Lambert, Bryan Melancon, Satterlee and Travis Turner voted for a substitute motion to hire Volkert.

Council members Casso, Kent Schexnaydre and Benny Johnson voted against the motion.

Council Chairman Chris Loar does not vote unless to break a tie.