However, Abele and other city officials then engaged in a series of negotiations that resulted in a new ranking of winners, touching off more accusations of favoritism.
For instance, the Phoenix firm of Ryden Architects was awarded the Ice House contract at the behest of the property owner, even though the firm was ranked third by the commission. Abele contends the two higher-ranked firms asked to withdraw their proposals upon learning the property owner would rather work with a local architect.
"We pointed out to them they were both first in line for other projects, so there was no problem," she says. "They withdrew voluntarily."
Doyle and other critics think the rules were unfairly altered. "I'm all for the property owner being able to pick the architect, but in this case public money is to be used, as has been cited as the reason for going the RFP route," Doyle comments. "If you say you're going to use a certain set of rules, you owe it to everyone to stick by those rules."
In another apparent breach of process, Ryden Architects also won the Tovrea Castle job, despite official statements that no one firm would be awarded more than one project. "When I questioned [city officials] about Ryden winning two, I was told I had misunderstood the condition," Doyle gripes. "Now they're saying the Tovrea project is not included in the limitation."
"Tovrea is not among the bond projects for which we will give only one contract apiece to the firms," Abele explains.
Some architects say they were told the reason Ryden won the Tovrea job is that one of its subcontractors, P&D Technologies, has particular familiarity with the site. However, once the Tovrea contract was clinched, P&D notified city officials that it plans to close its Phoenix office. "This pretty well trashes the city's rationale for picking Ryden," notes one observer.
Abele, however, contends that P&D will fulfill its commitments to the city while gradually phasing out its Phoenix operation.
Abele is unrattled by criticism of the bid awards, saying it stems from the harsh economic climate rather than flaws in the new bond program. "When there's work for all, no one complains," she observes. "But in hard economic times, you're more open to criticism because people really feel it if they miss out on the money."
Money, Doyle claims, is not the point of his arguments. "There isn't a lot of money in these projects to begin with," he says, noting that the total price tag of under $200,000 is but a small fraction of the bond issue.
"The point is they should be done by people who really care about Arizona," Doyle contends. "I think it's easy to understand that those people who have a heartfelt concern about a building would be really disappointed to see it go to someone with no personal stake in the city."
Doyle thinks career considerations may have influenced the City Hall bureaucrats overseeing the contracts. "Most of these professional bureaucrats are looking to move up and there's probably no ladder in Arizona for someone in historic preservation," Doyle muses. "There is no advantage to cooperating with local architects, while contacts made elsewhere might open up new avenues of opportunity to pursue."
Abele, who ran a consulting firm in Colorado Springs before taking the Arizona job, acknowledges that part of the lure here was an opportunity to become better known in the field. But she denies that self-interest influenced her handling of the recent contracts. "These [out-of-state bidders] aren't major firms," Abele says. "They won't get me work elsewhere."
Phoenix architect Paul Winslow, whose firm performed a much-acclaimed renovation of the old Phoenix City Hall, defends Abele. "I have nothing but top marks for her," says Winslow, one of five unsuccessful bidders on the Tovrea Castle project. "I find it hard to believe Debbie would do anything devious. If she exerted influence at all, my guess is it's just because she is so protective of historic properties and wanted to assure the best possible treatment for them."
"I don't think you have to live somewhere to care about something," Abele comments. "It's what you bring that's important. I was brought here because of my background and skills. What I found was a city that had all the pieces for a great historic-preservation program--a supportive council, necessary ordinances, and then, six months after I got here, the bond issue passed so we had the money to put it all together.