Bus contract situation gets even messier

This is going to get expensive.

The seven-year contract to operate Southern Nevada’s tax-subsidized bus system is worth some $600 million. Back in May, the Regional Transportation Commission considered bids from the existing operator, Veolia Transportation, and a challenger, First Transit. On May 19, the commission opted 4-3 to give the contract to First Transit, whose bid was $50 million lower over the seven-year period.

Rural board members Roger Tobler, Robert Eliason, Debra March and David Bennett voted in favor of First Transit. Chairman Larry Brown and commissioners Steve Ross and Chris Giunchigliani opposed the motion. County Commissioner Lois Tarkanian was absent.

One day after the vote, Veolia attorneys filed a protest, arguing state law required that for a vote to be binding, it had to be carried by a majority of the members of the commission, not merely a majority of those present.

Commissioners sought the advice of the attorney general’s office, which agreed with Veolia’s lawyers, ordering the RTC to rescind their vote — which they promptly did. Last Friday, however, a District Court judge ruled the original vote to award First Transit the lucrative contract was indeed valid; the opinion to the contrary by the state attorney general’s office was “in error and incorrect legally.” The judge found that state law years ago gave such commissions the discretion to make their own bylaws and policies governing meetings — and that since 1980, a majority vote has been based on the number of members present at the meeting.

Which leaves the bus companies, the RTC, and the taxpayers … where, exactly?

Judge Rob Bare stopped short of ordering the RTC to sign the contract with First Transit, saying the subsequent unanimous July vote to rescind the earlier contract award had muddied his legal grounds to do so.

Since rescinding the May vote, the board has deadlocked 4-4 on all proposals regarding the contract. Ms. Tarkanian joins Mr. Brown, Ms. Giunchigliani and Mr. Ross; Mr. Bennett’s replacement, Kraig Hafen, has sided with his predecessor.

RTC executives allowed Veolia to continue to operate the bus system on a month-to-month basis for 180 days.

The board meets Oct. 13. They could award the contract to First Transit, review the scoring on the bids, or choose to reject all proposals and start over. The board has also discussed splitting the contract into two different regions.

“Government by judge” is far from ideal. But whatever the RTC does at this point is likely to land it in court. There’s a reason why the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t have eight members … or 10. The Legislature needs to make sure the RTC and other such entities have an odd number of voting members.

Meantime, while the lower bid is not always the best, outside experts have confirmed either bidder can perform this work, leaving those who voted for the taxpayers to spend an extra $50 million — who voted against the low bid — to explain what influenced them to make such an increasingly expensive call.

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