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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

City holds firm on hire

Passion outstrips degree for engineering chief

Despite a nearly $500,000 estimating error on a bridge renovation project, Spokane City Hall is standing behind its decision to put a small-businessman with no engineering training in charge of its engineering division.

Kyle Twohig, 32, took over the city’s engineering services department in June after City Engineer Mike Taylor was reassigned to focus on a major water project. Twohig, who is paid nearly $90,000 a year, owns a coffee stand in Spokane and previously sold custom snow skis. He also helped manage construction projects in the Seattle area before returning to Spokane in 2008.

City leaders say Twohig’s passion and business experience are more important than an engineering degree, particularly because the position was redesigned to focus primarily on project management.

Jan Quintrall, the city’s director of business and development services who oversaw Twohig’s hiring, said Twohig was “head and shoulders” above the other candidates. She acknowledged that an “egregious error” might have been made with the botched bridge estimate but blamed the consultant hired to assist the city.

For his part, Twohig, who is the son of Spokane Public Facilities District CEO Kevin Twohig, said he has the necessary experience to oversee the activities of the engineering department and that the pricier-than-expected project to strengthen the Greene Street Bridge was underway well before he was hired.

“This is a project that has been going on a very long time and I’ve been in this position for a short period of time,” Twohig said. “A senior engineer has been on this project from start to finish. A principal engineer has overseen the senior engineer.”

Twohig blames the flawed estimate on David Evans and Associates, the consulting firm that estimated the project would cost $670,000. The low bid came in last week at $1.154 million, about 70 percent higher than estimated. The city wanted a consultant because none of its engineers had experience with fiber-reinforced polymer, a low-cost alternative to replacing the bridge.

The City Council, which unanimously approved Twohig’s hiring, will consider accepting the bid Monday, drawing from the Arterial Street Fund to make up the balance.

Still, the half-million-dollar estimating error has brought up questions of Twohig’s leadership at the department, which has 47 full-time employees and a budget of more than $48 million, including $43 million in projects for 2013.

“That was a surprise when I heard that Monday,” City Council President Ben Stuckart said about the estimating error, adding that the council sets policy, not hiring guidelines. “I guess we’ll have to keep a close eye on him.”

Stuckart said Twohig hasn’t “been in place long enough for me to draw a complete conclusion,” and that the council had to “give department heads some leeway when putting their teams together.”

Councilman Jon Snyder agreed.

“While I have concerns, I’m waiting to see how it works out,” Snyder said. “There are a lot of changes going on at the city. We’ve lost some good people with good institutional knowledge. We need to make sure that we are getting people with good operational knowledge.”

Quintrall was livid when she heard The Spokesman-Review was asking questions about Twohig’s qualifications.

When questioned Thursday, Quintrall said Twohig “managed very big projects” during his six years as a construction developer with the Inland Group. His ownership of Black Tie Coffee on the South Hill since October 2011 has given him “entrepreneurial spirit and problem-solving ability,” Quintrall said.

Twohig has also been a product rep for Sneva MFG, a local producer of custom skis and snowboards.

She said Twohig’s job title of engineering operations manager, which he has had since early June, does not mean he oversees the city’s engineers.

“He keeps projects moving,” said Quintrall, Twohig’s immediate supervisor. “Mike Taylor is the city engineer.”

Quintrall said Twohig did not replace Taylor. Instead, the two “work hand in hand.”

In January, when Mayor David Condon shifted Taylor to his new role, he sent a letter to city employees advising that a search would begin for someone to replace Taylor, making no mention of looking for someone to work alongside him. And until Friday, Twohig’s name appeared alone under the engineering section on the city’s Web page listing departments and department heads. Taylor’s name was added only after The Spokesman-Review began asking about Twohig’s hiring.

Taylor, in an interview Friday, said he was the one who requested an “operations manager” to help him “deliver what I promise to deliver.”

Taylor said that though Twohig was the only applicant for the position he could recall without an engineering degree, Twohig had the necessary qualities.

“Kyle said this is something I want to do and can do,” Taylor said. “For me, having a passion is the most important.”

Quintrall agreed, adding that Twohig’s lack of engineering experience made him stand above the 12 other candidates vying for the job, of which she chose three to bring to the hiring committee, which included Taylor; principal engineers Ken Brown and Gary Nelson; senior engineers Katherine Miller and Marcia Davis; and Rick Romero, the city’s utilities director.

“Engineers are engineers. They’ll engineer things to death,” she said. “I have engineers out my eyeballs.”

According to Spokesman-Review archives, 13 engineers have overseen the city’s construction of bridges, roads and other complex structures since at least World War I, including A.M. Eschbach, Glen Yake and Katy Allen, who is now Liberty Lake’s city administrator. Other than Twohig, just one of them, Phil Williams, didn’t have an engineering degree. Williams was named director of planning and engineering services in July 1996 but was fired the next year after his affair with a scientist hired to study Spokane’s Waste-to-Energy Plant was uncovered by The Spokesman-Review.

Though Twohig’s appointment is extraordinary, he and others said his prominent father had nothing to do with it.

His father has been involved in public facility management in Spokane since Expo ’74, when his company was hired to do all the sound and lighting for the 180-day fair, a job that was expanded to operate the performing arts center and coliseum.

When the fair ended, the city hired Twohig. In 1989, the facilities district was created by the state Legislature and Twohig continued working for the quasi-governmental organization.

The elder Twohig was president of the Spokane Club’s board of trustees for 2011-12, a position he inherited from Quintrall.

Condon said Twohig’s family relations had nothing do with him signing off on the hire. Instead, like Quintrall, he said he was looking for someone with management, not engineering, experience.

“How do you make sure that the project moves on time? How do you make sure that you’re moving on budget?” he said. “Most engineers don’t want to be told there’s a budget, and rightfully so. They sit there and they design. So, who’s watching the budget?”

He added that lack of experience didn’t necessarily disqualify anyone on his team, including himself.

“I was never a mayor before,” he said. “Our city administrator was never a city administrator before.”

Staff writer Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report.
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