MIAMI (CBSMiami) – A billion dollar bid for federally mandated sewer repairs in Miami-Dade County has been called into question by the county’s ethics watchdog.

Joe Centorino, executive director of the Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, said allowing one of the two bidders, CH2M Hill, to directly contact members of a selection committee to submit more than 400 pages of additional documents “contributed to a serious public trust problem with this solicitation.”

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But Centorino did not accuse CH2M of any wrongdoing, laying the blame on ambiguous county guidelines. Tuesday, he stopped short of saying that the county throw out the bids, according to our news partners at the Miami Herald.

In his non-binding opinion, Centorino said he interviewed county staffers, who told him they thought the hefty submission was surprising, inappropriate and unfair.

He and Interim Miami-Dade Inspector General Patra Liu, from whom Centorino requested comment, concluded that a vague county solicitation document was at fault, because it did not specifically prohibit direct contact with selection committee members or the additional submission.

“The guidelines themselves are imprecise and offer little in the way of useful guidance,” Liu wrote.

As a result, Centorino wrote, “The decision-making process as a whole, on a project of great significance to Miami-Dade County, has raised substantial issues regarding the integrity of the process and the fairness of the outcome, which could have a negative impact upon the public trust in County government.”

The question now is: What will Mayor Carlos Gimenez do?

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The mayor said Tuesday he’s not inclined to recommend that county commissioners hire CH2M, which the selection committee ranked first over AECOM Technical Services. But he also said he’s hoping to save the bids and avoid going back to square one — though he wouldn’t say how. The bids are for a $1.6 billion dollars in county work.

“The ethics opinion confirmed our concerns that the process, while not illegal, was irregular,” Gimenez said. “I’m working on a way of leveling the playing field.”

The mayor requested the ethics opinion in September, after his office put together a draft memo to restart the bid because CH2M may have had an unfair advantage. The memo was never sent. Both firms have hired lobbyists close to the mayor.

In May, the county entered into a federal agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Florida Department of Environmental Protection to fix Miami-Dade’s crumbling sewer system. The consent decree, as the agreement is known, helped the county avoid a lawsuit over the decrepit pipes.

The county must meet project deadlines set in the decree — the clock begins ticking in December — according to the water and sewer department. County staff can manage the projects in the beginning if an outside construction manager hasn’t been selected by then, Doug Yoder, the department’s deputy director, said last month.

Another bid to design the sewer repairs is moving along separate from the one to select a construction manager, so the repairs themselves should not be held up, Yoder said.

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