The Anne Arundel County Council ordered an audit yesterday of a contract worth as much as $11 million to install artificial turf at school athletic fields that was awarded to a company with political ties but no experience in such projects.
Council members, who also froze the funding for the project in the annual budget that they approved yesterday, declined to say why they want the contract reviewed.
But their 6-0 vote came after one councilman questioned the transparency of the bidding process, and two subcontractors no longer involved in the deal raised questions about Sunny Acres Landscaping's winning bid.
The owner of a Georgia-based turf provider, whom Sunny Acres cut ties with, said key aspects of the project have changed since the county signed the contract.
"What they've done is akin to reopening the bid process, as far as I'm concerned," said Donna Nensel of AstroLawn Sales & Service.
County officials said they are confident of Sunny Acres' ability to do the job and have adamantly denied any implication that the contract has been handled any differently from other projects.
Dennis Callahan, chief administrative officer for Anne Arundel, said the county would work with the auditor.
"I think the council, considering the information or the rumors that have gone around, are doing a proper thing. We don't have a problem in the world with it," Callahan said.
Sunny Acres submitted the lowest bid in a sealed, competitive process earlier this year. The project is a first for the family-owned landscaping company, whose vice president, Les Belcher III, was a 2006 Republican candidate for the state General Assembly.
His wife, the sister of Republican Del. Donald H. Dwyer, sits on the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee with an aide to County Executive John R. Leopold.
Sunny Acres President Les Belcher Jr. said yesterday that construction of the fields is already under way at three county high schools and that the scrutiny is "sad" and politically charged.
"Somebody decided they would make some political hay out of it, I guess," said Belcher, noting that he is a Democrat. "We're moving along, and if they stop it, it's just pitiful.
"They're hurting nobody but the schools and the children."
Last week, County Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat, said that the connections were "the sort of thing the public would like to know about."
He co-sponsored legislation earlier this year that will require greater disclosure in county contracts. He also is among a handful of officials, including three other council members and Leopold, who have received campaign contributions from the third-lowest bidder, Reliable Contracting Co., records show.
An independent engineer's report listed AstroLawn Sales & Service as the turf supplier and its partner, Paul Johnson, as the turf installer.
The report - cited by county officials as affirmation that Sunny Acres had affiliated itself with an experienced team - gave all three companies a favorable review, and the contract with Sunny Acres was executed March 27.
On April 7, the county came before the council seeking an additional $600,000 for the project, which is being paid for in part by state Program Open Space funds.
Benoit asked Ken Fleming, the county Public Works Department's assistant chief engineer, whether Sunny Acres "had ever built these types of fields," according to minutes of the council meeting.
Fleming said that "Sunny Acres does have prior experience," the minutes read.
Not only was the project a first for Sunny Acres, officials acknowledge, but within two weeks, Les Belcher Jr. was expressing reservations about working with AstroLawn and said he was exploring other options, according to e-mails obtained by The Sun.
Sunny Acres has since selected new subcontractors, including a carpet supplier based in Dalton, Ga., and another experienced turf installer, based in Fort Washington, Prince George's County.
Nensel, owner of the turf supplier named in initial documents, said she advised Sunny Acres for months about various aspects of turf bids. She now questions the company's price for a critical aspect of the project.
According to county documents, Sunny Acres' $114,000 estimate for base work on the fields was about a third of what engineers had projected and about half as much as other bidders proposed.
Experts say the base work is a critical part of any artificial turf field project that can cause long-term problems if not performed correctly.
After severing ties with AstroLawn, Belcher said he attempted to keep Johnson on the project. Johnson opted out, and he called dealing with Sunny Acres "the most bizarre case I've ever run across in 23 years of installing artificial turf." He also questioned the low bid on the base work.
"When they're 50 percent of everybody else, then you know something is wrong," said Johnson, who said he has installed hundreds of turf fields.
Belcher said that his company used its ties in the community to find good deals.
"We have advantages that probably other contractors don't have or didn't take into consideration," Belcher said. "We're very comfortable with [our bid], the bonding company is comfortable, and the county has nothing to lose."
Nensel, meanwhile, said that shifting subcontractors late in the process should be a concern for the county. She said the company was used to make Sunny Acres' bid more attractive.
"They didn't know anything about turf - they've been in the business for five minutes. We were brought in to bring them up to speed, to fill in the knowledge gaps, and we were basically used."
But Christopher J. Phipps, the county's chief engineer, said there was nothing wrong with Sunny Acres changing its subcontractors.
He said the county has an agreement only with the general contractor - in this case, Sunny Acres - and any new subcontractors must be approved to make sure they can perform the work to the specifications.
Phipps said Sunny Acres did not include any subcontractors in its initial bid and, prior to the execution of the contract, a company needs to submit potential subcontractors only to demonstrate that it has "an understanding of what the terms and conditions of the contract are."
Belcher said that even though county records list AstroLawn as one of Sunny Acres' subcontractors, his company never made a formal pact with Nensel's company.
"All we were doing was exploring the potential that they might be able to work with us," Belcher said.
He said Nensel was just disgruntled that she wasn't selected, and the type of turf is not important.
"There's nothing unique about making carpets," he said.