Autumn on Lake Audobon

Autumn on Lake Audobon
Autumn on Lake Audubon, Photo by Alison Kamat

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Op-Ed: Not-So-Independent Review of Lake House Overrun, RestonNow, August 9, 2016

This is an op-ed by Reston resident Terry Maynard. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

Reston Association (RA) is in the midst of soliciting proposals to conduct what it calls an “independent” review of its handling of the Tetra (Lake House) purchase and renovation overrun, a process that promises more of the same poor processes and politicized results Restonians have seen for 18 months.

Most importantly, there’s the matter of RA characterizing this review as “independent.”  It is anything but that.

To be truly “independent,” the RA Board needs to step away completely from this process. Let the three community members named to the selection committee set the criteria for the review, let them then make the actual selection of the review firm and have them receive and approve the final report.

Further, and equally important, the RA staff should have no participation in the review other than to answer questions, provide information (including internal e-mails and discussion notes), and explain processes.   

Contractor Selection. The only element of the review that has even a hint of independence is the selection process for the contractor. It will be selected by a committee comprising a majority of the RA’s Board Governance Committee (four members) and three Restonian volunteers whom RA’s Board Operations Committee has selected. We understand the Reston citizen selectees are Janine Greenwood  (retired counsel to non-profits), Steven Garver (local attorney), and Eric Carr (CIA executive), although we have not yet seen their names announced by RA.

The Request for Proposal (RFP). The RFP has already been prepared and sent by RA to several dozen potential contractors with virtually no community input, so there is no significant “independent” aspect of the substance of what RA is seeking from potential contractors.

Limited Goal. What does the RFP for the “independent” review say RA intends to accomplish? The RFP states: “Specifically, the goal of this project is to identify areas for process improvement, potential changes to internal controls  and/or  modification  to  governance  procedures  to  help  ensure  situations  like  the Lake  House  cost overrun can be avoided in the future.”

So what’s missing in the RFP? Most importantly, nothing in the RFP calls for addressing the issue of accountability of anyone — staff, Board, contractors — for the Tetra debacle:  What bad decisions were made?  Who made those bad decisions?  How were they made?  What should be done about that?  Etc.

In short, there is nothing that looks at the roots of this debacle.  Not so much as an acknowledgement that “mistakes were made” either organizationally or individually, intentionally or inadvertently, appears to be desired in this “independent” report. Certainly nothing suggests that the reviewing consultant should identify potentially illegal or unethical activities, or even improper actions under existing RA processes or procedures by staff or Board members, much less simply stupid decisions and actions.

The RFP is looking only for a whitewash of RA’s and the Board’s actions over the last two years with some suggestions about potential processes and procedures for the future.

Unrealistic Schedule. According to RA’s schedule, by early September RA will select and hopefully sign a consultant for the task of reviewing the Tetra mess. It expects a final report by the end of October — a mere seven weeks later. That is not enough time for a serious review of all that has occurred (see Reston 20/20’s list of eight key issues), much less the preparation of well-founded and appropriate recommendations about the future.

The Board’s explanation for that short schedule is that the report’s results will be needed in November for consideration in the 2017 budget cycle, although there is virtually nothing about the stated goal of developing new processes and procedures that generates much budget impact — ever.

Moreover, RA budget amendments are fairly routine at any point of the year. The review contract itself will require a budget amendment late this year that has not yet even been proposed to the Board, much less approved. RA just made a $430,000 budget adjustment mid-year to cover the cost overruns in renovating Tetra.

The 2017 RA budget schedule is no excuse for the limited timeframe the prospective contractor has to carry out this “independent” review. The contractor should have 4-6 months to do a thorough job.

No External Oversight. As it stands now, only the RA staff will be guiding the contractor’s work, no doubt with some offline kibitzing from insider Board members, but nothing the Reston public or even some Board members will know about. It will be providing guidance as to what work it expects (and expects not) to be done along the way and what the final report should address.

Nowhere in the very short period permitted for this review is there an opportunity for the community to know, much less to influence, what will be in the report. That could be done in an RA-sponsored community meeting or two — an opportunity for the consultant to both present early observations and describe its processes as well as listen to the community’s reactions and ideas. That could lead to a more “independent” review and would be “transparent.”  Instead the contractor will be led by the nose by RA staff and Board insiders.

A small bit of good news is that the RFP calls for the consultants to “meet with individuals and organizations from Reston, to ensure the concerns of the community are addressed in the review.”

Still, how much of what the contractor learns from those people and groups will show up in
the final report or be dismissed by inane RA explanations will be driven by RA. It will have the last word, and it won’t be “independent.”

Information Access. RA will also control what information the contractor has to work with although its RFP generally states in a weird way it will make requested information available.

Here is how the RFP makes that statement: “The review will include all materials and documents deemed necessary by the consultant and/or shared with the RA Board and the public related to the Tetra/Lake House.”

So the accessible information includes Tetra-related information shared with the Board and public, but how about information within the staff and its contractors working on Tetra, including communications with RA’s two contract attorneys?

How can the consultant deem materials “necessary” until it knows they exist and reviews them?  How would RA respond to a blanket request for ALL existing information about Tetra?

And that access probably does not include unofficial communications among RA Board members, staff, contractors, and counsel — “personal” phone calls, private meetings, private e-mails, text messages, etc.

“Independent?”  So, please, if anyone can, tell me what is “independent,” much less “transparent,” about this review of the Tetra debacle. As the preceding suggests, there are several ways RA could make the effort more independent, more transparent, and more useful to Reston’s needs even at this late date if it wanted to.

While RA and its Board still has an opportunity to make this review responsive to community needs, more transparent to RA members, and truly independent from RA control, don’t expect it. Restonians should stand by to be soaked with a big consulting bill, little new information, virtually no improvement in RA or the Board, and absolutely no accountability for the continuing disaster that is Tetra.

Terry Maynard