The leak, estimated at 100 gallons per minute, is buried 20 feet below the surface of Sawmill Creek Road, between the Indian River bridge and Indian River Road. First detected in April, the leak is likely growing progressively worse, according to Public Works director Michael Harmon. He worries that the road could be undermined without prompt action. “I’m not saying the sky is falling,” he told the assembly, “but the risk is there.” (Image: Google Maps)

The Sitka Assembly has authorized up to $400,000 to repair a critical water main, but also has strong reservations about whether the problem is a true emergency.

Several members questioned the decision by Public Works to bypass the competitive bid process — but no one at the table wanted the blame if what is now a leak becomes a man-made disaster.

You could tell it was going to be a difficult discussion, from the moment member Kevin Knox put the matter on the table.

Knox – I move to approve ordinance 2019-28 on second and final reading..

Mayor Paxton – Is there a second?

(five seconds of silence)

Mayor Paxton – I’ll second it.

That was Mayor Gary Paxton seconding the motion from the chair — an unusual start to what would become an unusual discussion: How bad is bad enough to not put a big repair project out to bid, and procure services under emergency rules instead?

The water main serves all of downtown Sitka. It’s buried 20-feet below Sawmill Creek Road, near the Indian River Bridge. It was first detected in April, and public works director Michael Harmon says it’s been getting progressively worse.

“The risk factor is a 24-inch high-pressure line coming open and taking out the road,” Harmon said, “and controlling that water to shut it off. You’re shutting off all the water to town. That’s your high-end level risk, we hope we avoid that. I’m not saying the sky is falling and it can happen tomorrow, but that risk is there.”

That prompted member Valorie Nelson to cite Sitka General Code on procurement, and question whether this repair — because it is over $50,000 — should be subject to competitive bidding rules. Nelson, whose husband is a retired contractor, said others in the business were reluctant to call out city officials for unfair practices.

“I’ve also talked to other contractors who don’t want to come and speak against certain people in public works,” said Nelson, “because they’re worried about the retaliation factor.”

Members Richard Wein and Aaron Bean were in Nelson’s camp, suggesting that the problem now was months old, and therefore not a crisis.

But Bean, attending via teleconference, could not win a concession from public works director Harmon.

Bean – So it’s no longer an emergency then, Michael. Is that what you’re saying.

Harmon – I recommend that the city get this done as quick as possible. The risk is there.

The swing vote would likely fall to member Kevin Mosher, who agreed with those wanting a regular bidding process, but also saw the advantages in getting to this project without delay.

“I would prefer if it could go out to competitive bid,” said Mosher, “But I don’t want to be the guy who says no, and then something blows and then it’s all our fault.”

Sitka’s procurement rules  have enough flexibility to allow public works to craft a request for proposals (RFP) that could be fast-tracked. Mayor Paxton — who clearly did not expect a water line repair to take nearly an hour of the public’s time — thought there might be a consensus around middle ground.

“My view is, with the guidance from the experts at this table,” said Paxton, laughing, “is that if you’re going to go to bid, you do it creatively, you do it quickly, you do it for a limited amount of time, and you get on with it.”

But there was no consensus to be had. The final vote to authorize $400,000 was split 4-3 with Wein, Nelson, and Bean opposed. Harmon said that he hoped that only $250,000 would be needed for the actual repair, with the rest of the money returned to the department’s working capital fund.