Fyra Engineering, the firm working with the city on a Lake Mitchell restoration plan, is “under investigation,” the South Dakota Board of Technical Professions has confirmed.
An official with the board confirmed the company does not have an engineering license in South Dakota. Without the proper licensing, Mitchell City Council members say they would not pursue a lake restoration project with the Nebraska-based firm, bringing more uncertainty to the project’s timetable.
Board of Technical Professions staff declined to divulge further information about the investigation or the severity of the issue.
The Daily Republic reached out to Fyra at 2:30 p.m. Thursday to comment on this story, but the company did not immediately return phone calls.
The realization marks a shift in the recently optimistic restoration effort in the city of Mitchell. As recently as the February Lake Mitchell Advisory Committee meeting, the group of volunteers discussed making a $7.62 million Fyra-supported pitch to dredge the lake at the Mitchell City Council’s March 5 meeting.
The March 5 meeting came and went with no proposal made to the council.
One possibility? Someone found out about Fyra’s lack of an engineering license. Or, as lake committee liaison and Mitchell City Councilman Marty Barington heard, it may have been due to late-breaking changes in the cost assessment.
Whatever the case, Barington was stunned to learn the news.
“This is, like I said, definitely a shocker and definitely a disappointment, and until they get it figured out I think we need to halt on everything,” Barington told The Daily Republic on Thursday.
After Mitchell Mayor Jerry Toomey learned The Daily Republic was contacting City Council members, he emailed the newspaper stating that the proposal was delayed “until Mike Sotak obtained his South Dakota engineering license.” Sotak, a co-owner of Fyra, did not contact The Daily Republic directly.
“Mike has taken responsibility for not handling this sooner and has since submitted all of the required paperwork to the SD Board of Technical Professions which is on the Board’s March 23 agenda,” Toomey wrote in an email to The Daily Republic.
Toomey also said the proposal was delayed to provide for a more-accurate cost projection, as Barington speculated.
If Fyra was to practice engineering in South Dakota without a license, the Board of Technical Professions confirmed the company could be subject to disciplinary action.
According to South Dakota Codified Law, “Practice, or offer to practice, the professions of engineering, architecture, land surveying, landscape architecture, petroleum release assessment, or petroleum release remediation in this state without being licensed” is prohibited. A violation is a Class 2 misdemeanor.
Fyra has been involved with the city of Mitchell for years, and was awarded a $73,725 contract for a preliminary study on the lake in October 2016. The firm first visited Mitchell in 2015, and it’s unclear why it has not acquired a license in more than two years since the initial visit.
Councilman Dan Allen voted against the initial study, and he predicted the council would avoid Fyra if it is not licensed by the time they present to the board.
“I don’t know why you would (approve the plan) if they’re not licensed,” Allen said Thursday. “To me, it’s invalid.”
The firm stands to receive as much as $420,000 in fees through the dredging project, according to documents filed in a previous lake committee agenda.
But count Councilman Jeff Smith as one of those who’s not interested in Fyra’s plan.
“I will not approve Fyra or any other firm not licensed in S.D.,” Smith told The Daily Republic on Wednesday. “I guess I made that assumption when we hired them in the past, but going forward, I am sure the question will be asked.”
Council President Steve Rice said he learned of the finding from The Daily Republic on Thursday, and said, “I don’t have a comment without proper knowledge.”
And it’s not just Fyra as a firm that’s not licensed. According to the Board of Technical Professionals licensee roster, only one member of “The Fyra Team” listed on its website even shares a name with a licensed engineer in South Dakota. The name is Mark Jacobs — although Jacobs is listed as an “intern” at Fyra and the Mark Jacobs who is licensed maintains a residence in Massachusetts.
To get a sense of whether it’s standard operating procedure to go through the licensing process until absolutely necessary, The Daily Republic reached out to both the Board of Technical Professions and a professional engineer. A state official suggested “it’s not” normal, and so did the engineer.
Aside from Fyra’s failure to acquire a license to date, Councilman John Doescher first hoped to have an affordable assessment conducted to insure Fyra’s study was accurate. Doescher estimated such an assessment could cost around $1,000.
Doescher also wondered whether a firm already licensed in South Dakota could oversee the dredging project with a lower fee.
“Can we shop that out a little bit?” Doescher asked.
Also concerned with the lack of licensure is Councilman Kevin McCardle. McCardle said the finding “raises some eyebrows.”
“It’s like driving a car without a license,” McCardle said. “It’s against the law.”
As of Thursday, Mitchell’s lone candidate for mayor this June said he would not use an unlicensed firm for any stage of the restoration project.
That mayoral candidate is Mitchell City Councilman Mel Olson, who joined Allen in opposing the initial Fyra study in 2016. Two years later, Olson found himself questioning Fyra yet again.
Olson suggested the city wittingly moving forward with an unlicensed firm could lead to a legal issue, which could be detrimental to the citizens of Mitchell.
“Our taxpayers deserve better and I’m sure there is a local, or at least a South Dakota alternative to Fyra that we can utilize going forward for Lake Mitchell’s restoration,” Olson said.