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Bus contract standoff raises 50 million questions

Anybody who has tracked the debate over who should operate the Regional Transportation Commission’s bus service has to be wondering what the heck is going on with the process, which has dragged on for six months.

On the surface, the issue seems straightforward: During the worst recession ever experienced by Southern Nevadans, First Transit submitted a bid to run the bus system for $50 million less than the incumbent operator Veolia Transportation. When two qualified companies submit proposals, it is typically a no-brainer for politicians: They vote for the company that costs taxpayers less.

And that is what the majority did in May when they voted 4-3 to award the contract to First Transit.

Here is a brief rundown of what has since happened and where commissioners stand today: Veolia contested the vote, saying the vote was not a majority decision because eight members sit on the board. The commission sought an opinion from the attorney general’s office, which agreed with Veolia. First Transit filed a complaint in District Court, and a judge deemed the vote legal, saying the attorney general’s office erred in its interpretation of the majority-vote law.

The board has since hit a stalemate, with four commissioners staunchly supporting Veolia and the other four backing First Transit.

No one will budge.

Las Vegas City Council members Steve Ross and Lois Tarkanian have joined Clark County Commissioners Larry Brown and Chris Giunchigliani in voting for Veolia, saying that the $50 million difference is not accurate. They fear union workers could see their salaries and benefits cut if First Transit wins because of the company’s low bid.

Mesquite City Councilman Kraig Hafen, Boulder City Mayor Roger Tobler, North Las Vegas City Councilman Robert Eliason and Henderson City Councilwoman Debra March are pushing for First Transit, saying bus routes are less at risk because the company is saving the agency money.

As the debate drags on, commissioners appear to be becoming more sensitive to any appearance of impropriety.

Giunchigliani even referenced four former Clark County commissioners sent to federal prison for rubber-stamping votes for developers and strip club owners from whom they accepted bribes. Her point, she said, is that the bus contract debate is healthy; rubber-stamping is not.

“It’s a new dog in town. It’s a new day,” Giunchigliani said.

I’m not saying anything illegal is happening, but watching and listening to some commissioners leads me to wonder how new these dogs really are.

THE UNION ANGLE

Take the union angle. The majority of Veolia employees who crowd the commission chambers each month are union workers who clearly do not want to work for First Transit. They have heard horror stories about how First Transit has promised higher wages only to cut them, about how First Transit boasts about its benefits package when it is awful.

The manner in which the board has split on the contract issue is interesting. The four board members backing Veolia are Clark County commissioners and Las Vegas City Council members. Unions have historically pushed around representatives from the city and county, contributed generously to their campaigns and retaliated when scorned.

Aside from Eliason in North Las Vegas, the commissioners supportive of First Transit are from jurisdictions where unions are far less influential. Really, you never hear about union squabbles in Mesquite, Boulder City or even Henderson.

On Thursday, with pressure to make a decision building from a District Court judge and the Federal Transit Administration, union-friendly board members seemed to be trying to somehow keep Veolia in the game.

Giunchigliani made a motion to reject First Transit’s bid, split the contract into regions and issue a new request for proposals. At one time that might have been a viable solution, but Giunchigliani’s proposal was odd because it came three weeks after commissioners received a letter from the Federal Transit Administration specifically saying “such action is not permissible under FTA rules.”

Giunchigliani also suggested that if First Transit was awarded the contract, urban bus routes would be greatly affected. Hafen leaned back and said nothing, but I’ll say it: RTC executives have said that rural routes, like the one to Mesquite, would be cut if the agency runs with the higher bidder.

THE BROWN FACTOR

And then there is the Larry Brown angle. In June, he said this: “If the 4-3 vote is resolved, and it is deemed legal, as we’re recommending, then I will be the first one to congratulate First Transit and move forward.”

But Brown, the chairman who must sign the contract, has not budged. On Thursday he said last-minute paperwork filed by both parties has made it difficult to make educated decisions. Commissioners have the authority to postpone items on the agenda if they feel they are not prepared to vote.

Brown explained that he is uncomfortable with the scoring and weight of certain criteria in the request for proposals. The request for proposals says the commission cannot change the weight of scoring in the current procurement; those can only be reweighted if this batch of bids is tossed out and a new request for proposals is issued.

Keep in mind that District Court Judge Rob Bare warned that if the board acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner against First Transit, he might intervene and order Brown to sign the contract with First Transit, as the company has requested. Bare said the board must have sound business reasons to scrap the current proposals and seek new bids.

And remember that whole being sensitive to appearances of improprieties thing? Brown took great offense to a Road Warrior column pointing out relationships between board members and consultants. It was noted that Terry Murphy, a consultant for First Transit, worked on Brown’s mayoral election.

He doubted that a reporter would simply know about these types of relationships, then questioned how his vote would benefit Murphy because he favored Veolia. When reporters cover political bodies in Las Vegas for a decade, they tend to be able to connect the dots all by themselves. And, as to his other point, history has shown that relationships do not always translate into favors. A commissioner named Erin Kenny was once close friends with Lisa Mayo-DeRiso, a consultant. At some point their relationship went south and Mayo-DeRiso couldn’t buy Kenny’s vote. Well, she might have been able to, but she didn’t try.

The kicker here is Brown disclosed his relationship with Murphy on Thursday. Then, for the first time, he disclosed another relationship: Patrick Smith, a longtime lobbyist for Veolia, was a paid consultant on Brown’s mayoral campaign last spring.

Not that anybody is doing anything illegal, but transportation commissioners are doing just fine on their own making strange moves when it comes to this contract.

the collins intrigue

Then Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins added intrigue, the kind of intrigue that makes one say, “What the heck?”

Collins parachuted into this ordeal by accepting a consulting job with Veolia. His responsibility was to call fellow elected officials and lobby them to choose Veolia. When my colleague Jane Ann Morrison called him out on it, Collins said he saw nothing inappropriate about his new gig.

“I think I’m staying on an ethical path,” said Collins, well known for supporting unions. His take on the split board was this: “The urban folks may understand the issue more than the other folks.”

In other words, it’s a tough issue for hicks like Tobler and Hafen to wrap their heads around.

Collins sought advice from the district attorney’s office before taking the Veolia job, but acknowledged he never told his legal advisers his new employer would be Veolia. The fact that he wasn’t specific makes you wonder if he really thought the move was appropriate.

It is understandable that union workers fear for their jobs and their salaries. Most working people in Las Vegas share those concerns. Maybe the contract difference is not $50 million. Does it matter if it is $50 million or $5 million? Most government bodies are searching for new ways to save any money in this economy.

Spending thousands of dollars to reissue a request for proposals after two qualified companies submitted their best and final offers makes you wonder what the heck is going on here.

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call Adrienne Packer at 702-387-2904, or send an email to roadwarrior@reviewjournal.com. Include your phone number.

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