A state attorney general's ruling has thrown a $600 million bus contract back to the Regional Transportation Commission.
The commission did not have a legal majority when it voted two months ago to strip the lucrative contract from the incumbent operator and awarded it to a competitor, according to an opinion issued late Friday by the state attorney general's office.
Senior Deputy Attorney General George Taylor advised commissioners to immediately rescind the vote or his office will move to void it. In response, the RTC amended the agenda for Thursday's meeting to include an item to rescind its earlier decision.
"Quite clearly and regardless of any other arguments, RTC's 4-3 vote on May 19 failed to adhere to legislative intent," Taylor wrote.
The ruling means that First Transit, which has aggressively pushed commission chairman Larry Brown to sign off on the agreement, could lose the contract even though its winning bid was $50 million less than the proposal submitted by Veolia Transportation, which has run the system for more than a decade.
"We support the decision from the attorney general and we believe it is the correct decision," Mark Joseph, chief executive officer of Veolia said Monday.
First Transit officials had no comment.
Commissioners will only consider rescinding the decision Thursday, not vote again on the contract.
Just days after the board voted 4-3 to award the contract to First Transit, controversy arose over the interpretation of majority vote standards set out in a state law passed in 2001. Representatives of Veolia filed a protest claiming that, under state law, four affirmative votes do not constitute a majority on an eight-member board. First Transit lawyers countered saying the majority is based on members present, not the number of elected officials appointed to the commission.
During the May meeting, Regional Transportation Commission attorney Zev Kaplan advised board members they were exempt from a 2001 state law that required a majority vote be based on the number of commissioners on a board.
Kaplan said more than 100 public agencies that had to abide by the law were listed in the bill and the transportation commission was not one of them. He added that the agency's own policies and procedures do not require five votes to make up a majority.
The attorney general's office clearly disagreed, saying that Nevada open meeting laws override an agency's operating policies and the commission must abide by the state's majority standards.
"He (Kaplan) said that based on the opening clause of (the state law) which states, 'except as otherwise provided by specific statute,' he concluded that the RTC language was an exception to the requirements of the OML (open meeting law)," Taylor wrote. "...We respectfully disagree with his statutory interpretation."
Jacob Snow, the general manager of the transportation agency, said the commission has never before had such a close vote and therefore has not been in this position. The panel agreed to have the attorney general resolve the issue.
The unusual scenario arose when then-Mayor Oscar Goodman stepped down from the commission shortly before the May meeting and was replaced by Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian. She had a conflict and could not attend the meeting, leaving only seven commissioners to vote on the matter.
On June 9, the board considered whether to accept or reject the protest but once again could not drum up a majority vote, leaving First Transit with the contract, worth $600 million over a seven-year period.
Since then, the makeup of the commission has changed again. Mesquite City councilman David Bennett, a proponent of First Transit, left office due to term limits. His replacement is expected to be named Tuesday night.
It is questionable whether Veolia can win the Mesquite representative's vote. RTC officials have said if the higher bidder -- Veolia -- holds onto the contract, routes to Laughlin, Mesquite and Boulder City could be at risk because of cutbacks the commission would be forced to make.
If a tie vote occurs when the board reconsiders the contract in the future, it is up to the commission to offer staff members direction. The board could decide to re-issue a request for proposals, according to commission spokeswoman Tracy Bower.
Board members have also discussed and could ultimately decide to split up the contract into regions, meaning one company would operate the bus service in the northern end of the valley while the other would oversee the service in the southern end.
In the meantime, RTC executives have accepted Veolia's offer to extend its service past September when the company's contract expires. Bower said administrators are permitted to extend the contract for 180 days without the commission's consent. The contract will be extended on a month-to-month basis until a decision is made on the bus operator.
The transportation division already built its budget around First Transit's figures. Bower said the budget will not immediately be amended but administrators will monitor it closely.
Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at email@example.com or 702-387-2904.