By Shawn Raymundo
The city council on Tuesday, Sept. 1, reached an impasse over how to proceed with awarding the city’s contract for a multi-year tree service agreement, delaying again the solicitation process, which had put an Anaheim-based company as the top bidder.
Tuesday’s deadlocked decision on whether to award the contract to West Coast Arborists (WCA) or reject all bids marked the third time in more than four months that the council has ultimately deferred a decision on the matter.
After receiving bids for a three-year tree service contract, the city council in late April had voted to reject bids from Rod’s Tree Service and WCA—the lowest bidder and staff’s recommendation for the contract. Staff was then directed to put out a new bid for a five-year contract.
In early June, the city presented to council another recommendation to select WCA based on the new bids for the five-year service agreement. That recommendation was shot down again, as the council voted to redraft the solicitation process, putting it under a personal service agreement, instead of a maintenance service agreement.
The following month, the council approved a new city policy related to the procedure and selection of contractors. The new policy was meant to allow the city to consider other factors besides cost when it came to tree maintenance services.
Public Works Director Tom Bonigut on Tuesday noted to the council that the new policy shaped the latest RFP process, which evaluated the bidders based on a 100-point system with the updated criteria.
Three companies vying for the five-year service contract had submitted bids for the latest round of proposals, with United Pacific Services coming in as the lowest bidder at $196,500. WCA submitted a bid of $219,200, while Rod’s, a San Clemente-operated business, submitted a bid of $266,620.
Based on the criteria under the new policy, a panel comprising city department heads—Utilities Director Dave Rebensdorf, Community Development Director Cecilia Gallardo-Daly and Bonigut—evaluated the three bids, resulting in WCA again ranking as the top contender.
According to the city, WCA had received the highest marks from each of the panelists and had an average score of 85. Evaluations were based on adequate knowledge of local conditions, experience of key project staff, work plan and approach, project experience and cost proposal, among others.
United Pacific received an average score of 79 from the panel. Rod’s, which had overwhelming support by members of the community Tuesday night, received an average score of 78, according to the city’s report.
Bonigut noted that the cost factor made up less than a third of the point score.
“Cost was less than a third of the total score, and 70% of the 100-point total were based on factors other than costs,” Bonigut said. “So, compared to bid solicitations, cost was actually a greatly diminished factor.”
Following a lengthy public-comment portion, in which residents raised claims questioning WCA’s safety record, acting Mayor Laura Ferguson asked Bonigut whether safety records were part of the criteria.
“In terms of safety, we go on what’s in the proposal. I’m aware of a lot of these issues raised by commenters; I can just tell you that your staff is not concerned that West Coast Arborists can provide a safe working environment,” Bonigut said, adding that many of the claims raised “were frankly not even attributable to (WCA).”
Ferguson later noted that safety records should have been a factor in the proposals. She also noted that Rod’s has been the city’s tree service vendor for more than 40 years.
“They’re very unique. To have a full-service tree maintenance company . . . because West Coast has so many clients all over, I can’t imagine those cities have what we do with Rod’s right here, front and center,” Ferguson said.
Amid the mounting pressure to award the contract to Rod’s, Councilmember Gene James proposed another rejection of all the bids and that a new RFP process should be initiated, considering safety records as part of the evaluation criteria.
“Rod’s Tree Service has been a part of this community, and I’m just not going to be able to walk away from them,” James said.
Prior to making his motion, James asked City Attorney Scott Smith whether the city faced any exposure if the city didn’t select WCA for the contract.
“There’s some pretty significant exposure here if we don’t do that. This is left to the council’s discretion, and we would defend any decision you made,” Smith said, before noting that while councilmembers privately can decide where to shop based on subjective criteria, on the dais, they don’t have that prerogative.
“State law requires that awards of contracts be awarded and given competitively and given on competition and not on favoritism and past successes,” Smith said. “The city in this case had criteria in place that mandate award based on low bid; West Coast won that twice, and we set aside that for criteria, which takes into account subjective factors.”
Councilmember Chris Hamm pushed back on the motion to reject the bids, calling it a “dumb decision,” while simultaneously giving a full-throated endorsement of Rod’s, calling the company “rad” and thanking its service to the community.
Hamm continued to slam the motion, as well as Ferguson, for repeatedly supporting fiscal conservatism, yet unwilling to award a service contract to the lowest bidder.
“What I do find comical about all this is I hear the term fiscal (conservatism) being thrown out. You, Laura, you covered the term transparent, you’re against legal costs . . . but with you, a fiscal conservative, you’re willing to look away from $344,000 over five years,” Hamm said.
“I just don’t like people throwing out edicts of what they live by until it most benefits them and their friends, which in this case, clearly, your friends are Rod’s Tree Service,” he added.
Hamm and Councilmember Kathy Ward voted against James’ motion, while Ferguson voted yes. In a tie vote, the status quo is upheld.
Ferguson asked Smith to weigh in on what this means going forward and whether the city’s current month-to-month contract with Rod’s continues. Smith responded that the city has likely “done that as long as we can,” and that he would have to review the options the following day.
Bonigut on Wednesday, Sept. 2, said city staff was reviewing and considering possible next steps for the RFP process and tree service contract.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.