Atwater councilman reprimanded for bid rigging regarding re-shingling project

ATWATER -- Atwater Councilman H. James Olson was reprimanded by the town's mayor last month for "bid rigging" on a project to re-shingle the well house.

ATWATER -- Atwater Councilman H. James Olson was reprimanded by the town's mayor last month for "bid rigging" on a project to re-shingle the well house.

Olson apologized to the council and "took responsibility for his actions," according to the minutes for the July 19 meeting.

"I made a mistake and I admit it," Olson said in an interview.

The incident involved relatively small change -- a $1,000 price difference in the quotes.

Mayor Bruce Baker said "bid rigging is bad," but the fact that Olson's actions didn't represent the council and weren't in the best interest of the town's residents cuts deeper than dollars and cents.


If he would have had the power to do so, Baker said he would have removed Olson from the City Council.

What Baker did do, after talking with the League of Minnesota Cities, was remove Olson's ability to independently seek price quotes for the rest of the year.

Olson oversees the city's Maintenance Department as a council member, and as part of his responsibility he was allowed to spend a limited amount of money without seeking council approval, Baker said. That privilege has also been removed.

The incident involved putting a new roof on a 15-by-21-foot shed that houses the city's municipal water equipment and chemicals.

Olson was asked to get several quotes for the council to consider.

One bid he laid on the table was from Holmquist Lumber in Grove City for $4,067. The other was from Builders Outlet in Willmar for $4,272. The board approved the quote from Holmquist Lumber in June.

But Baker said he noticed something a little odd.

By looking at the top of the paper the quote was printed on, Baker said it appeared that the bid from Builders Outlet had been faxed to Holmquist Lumber.


Knowing what a competitor was bidding would make it easy for Holmquist to place a lower bid on the project.

Olson said he did indeed ask Holmquist to submit a bid and get another quote from a different contractor. He said he made a mistake by not getting two independent quotes for the project himself.

Baker charges that Olson told Holmquist to get another bid but to make sure Holmquist's quote was lower. Olson denies that.

The council then learned that an Atwater roofer, Geno Latuska, had also submitted a quote for the project several months earlier for a thousand dollars less than Holmquist.

Baker said Olson never presented that bid to the council. He didn't "want to use that bid for some reason or the other," Baker said.

Olson said he never asked for a bid from Latuska because Latuska was proposing a different roof design that he didn't like. Olson said he never saw -- and still hasn't seen -- Latuska's bid document, which was found in the city's maintenance building.

Latuska said he gave his bid directly to Olson.

Latuska said he was "surprised to see there were two bidders higher than me and one of them got the bid and mine wasn't even considered." Besides that, he was the first one to submit his quote.


"It's a screwed up mess," Latuska said, with a throaty laugh. Latuska said he and Olson "have always gotten along pretty good before" and didn't know why his quote was withheld.

At first Olson refused to pull his motion to give the bid to Holmquist. Olson told the council the company had already ordered the materials for the project, said Baker, when, in fact, materials had not been ordered.

On July 5, Olson withdrew his motion and the council awarded the project to Latuska.

Baker, who said he's had a few "run-ins" with Olson in the past, doesn't hold back his criticism of Olson and isn't shy about saying that he wants Atwater residents to know what Olson did before they elect him to another term.

Olson was appointed in 2005 to fill the unexpired term of Kern Kragenbring. That seat is up for election this fall.

Olson wouldn't say if he intends to file again or not, but said he thinks Baker "is trying to get me not to run."

Olson said he didn't want to throw any stones back at Baker. "I'm not here to get in trouble or get him in trouble; that's not what I'm here for," Olson said.

"I make mistakes, I know I do," said Olson. "We've got to go on from here."

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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