Item 8B on tomorrow’s City Council agenda is approval of a $3.2-million contract (plus 10 percent contingency) with James Corner Field Operations for “the design and construction bid document preparation of the six-acre Palisades Garden Walk & Town Square project” in the Civic Center.

An eight person screening panel consisting of the architect and Dean of the USC School of Architecture, a landscape architect from New York City, the Vice Chancellor/Campus Architect at UC Santa Barbara and five key City Hall staffers conducted interviews and whittled two-dozen applicants down to six finalists.

The final six teams made presentations and participated in a question and answer sessions. New York City-based James Corner Field Operations was selected for the job based on its qualifications and expertise.

This past week, I’ve heard complaints from politicians and the public alike that there was no public process — no citizen commission, city council persons or members of the public — privy to the selection process.

Why in a city where even the paint scheme on the police cars gets a thorough public review, how come there was no local involvement in the selection of the design/architect/landscape team whose imprint will set the style and tone for this very large and important project? I e-mailed Barbara Stinchfield, City Hall’s Director of Community and Cultural Services who is overseeing the project for a response.

She replied by phone that the panel interviews focused on the overall qualifications and related experience as well as the general approach used by the various design teams bidding on the project and how they thought their team best met the specific selection criteria as outlined in the RFQ (Request for Qualifications).

She also said, “It has been the city’s long-standing practice to use inter-departmental City Hall staff committees to develop recommendations on design teams bidding on projects to the City Council” and that numerous informational items had been issued during the process. She explained that this is the way City Hall had handled bids on all the big city projects and that no complaints were raised about doing it this way before.

In an e-mail follow-up she wrote, “There were no concept designs or approaches presented or discussed. This was not a Request for Proposal process which would have resulted in teams presenting more specific information about design proposals.” She assured me, ”The community has not missed its opportunity to engage in programming and design conversations even at the project’s earliest stages.”

She continued, “An Information Item was sent to the City Council and made available to the public on September 21, 2009, prior to issuing the RFQ. This report clearly described the process and the selection criteria that would be included in the RFQ. City staff heard no concerns either from City Council members or members of the public and thus proceeded with its implementation.”

Recreation and Parks Commission Chair Susan Cloke had a different take.

In response to questions about her thoughts on the process, she e-mailed: “I suggested to Barbara Stinchfield that we consider creating a selection process which included an opportunity for public input. Suggestions I offered were, holding a Recreation and Parks Commission hearing where the public was asked what criteria they wanted to be considered in the selection process and creating an opportunity for public review and comment on the submittals … However, in consultation with the City Attorney, none of the public review options were accepted into the selection process."

Being that the selection of the supplier (or architect/landscape design team) will greatly influence the appearance, amenities and features of what some residents are now calling “Our future Central Park,” Cloke’s suggestions should have been implemented. And, the City Attorney’s apparent advice to “not accept public review options” is puzzling and worrisome.

New York-based James Corner Field Operations is an excellent design/landscape firm, but there may be others equally as good if not better, or more appropriate for Santa Monica’s sensibilities — noting that the final screening panel consisted primarily of non-Santa Monicans.

There is a growing concern that this contract and its funding should not be approved until presentations from the other five firms are reviewed and commented on by the City Council, appropriate city commissions or the public.

Cloke concluded, “I just wish that the choice could have been made in a transparent, public process. Then, whatever the outcome, I think that would have created more support … and better expressed who we are as a City.”

Despite detailed assurances by Stinchfield about a thorough and complete public process along every step of the way, It seems we have reached a point in time — possibly due to a growing lack of confidence in City Hall to make the right decisions — when the process for awarding future bid contracts for large public projects should be open to public participation and changed to protect against possible abuse of the process.

When not bidding on City Hall contracts, Bill can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com