By Shawn Raymundo
West Coast Arborists has been the frontrunner for San Clemente’s tree service contract three separate times in the past few months, each time beating out Rod’s Tree Service—a local business that is beloved by many in the community.
However, despite being the top contender for the contract, WCA has continued to come up empty-handed, as each time the award has come up for a vote, the council has looked to reject all bids and amend its solicitation process.
“You don’t see that in other cities. It’s a rare occasion where you see that happen—three times, everybody bids on the rules, and it comes back and they don’t give it to you,” WCA President Patrick Mahoney said, later adding: “I’ve never seen this before.”
Last week, councilors reached an impasse over the contract, leaving the city’s tree service operations in limbo. A motion by Councilmember Gene James, and supported by acting Mayor Laura Ferguson, proposed rejecting the bids again and reinitiating another bid process, this time taking safety records into consideration.
For WCA, which has a long history of bidding on government contracts, working with more than 300 agencies in California and Arizona, the latest bidding battle in San Clemente is “unheard of,” said Mahoney, who was disappointed by the council’s latest meeting.
“It’s disappointing that they couldn’t follow the guidelines that they set,” he said.
According to City Attorney Scott Smith, a council decision to not go with WCA could expose the city to litigation. Smith told the council that it didn’t have the prerogative to shop for contracts based on subjective criteria.
“There’s some pretty significant exposure here if we don’t (go with WCA),” Smith had said, adding: “State law requires that awards of contracts be awarded and given competitively and given on competition and not on favoritism and past successes.”
Following the council meeting, Mahoney told San Clemente Times that WCA is “looking at all our options.”
“Hopefully, they’ll do the right thing at the coming meeting (on Sept. 15),” he said, noting that the council’s 2-2 decision on whether to award the contract or reject the bids was left hanging in the air.
It’s unclear whether the city will bring back the topic for further discussion at the next council meeting.
On Tuesday, Sept. 8, Ferguson said that if the council does vote to reject all proposals, she’d recommend the contract go back out to bid, including safety records in the evaluation criteria, while also shortening the length of the potential contract to one year.
She said she would also want to know what sort of philanthropic and pro bono work each bidder had done in the past, noting that Rod’s has donated several trees to the city and been a supporter of the community.
“We really do receive a lot of freebies . . . the number of trees they plant, that’s not taken into account,” said Ferguson, “I’d like to see what the other bidders could do in regards to that. In terms of what they’re doing for the nonprofits . . . those things, there’s no indication on any monetary value of those things, and maybe they should have been.”
Rod’s has previously stated that the company donates more than 100 trimmed trees every year in addition to its contract, saving the city nearly $13,000.
After such a bid process is completed, Ferguson said she’d select the “appropriate bidder,” whether that be WCA, Rod’s or United Pacific Services, which had vied for the contract in the latest round of bids.
Councilmember James had not responded to a request seeking comment as of this posting.
For Rod’s, which has been the city’s tree service contractor for more than 40 years, Richard Rodriguez said he and his team “were happy that the council supported local business” and that James and Ferguson wanted to reject the bids.
“We’re happy that the councilmembers decided to speak up and support a local business like us,” Rodriguez said. “We’re just a local company, we live here in San Clemente, and for there to be litigation because of this, we feel horrible about it; that’s not our intention, but it’s nice to see a city council stand up for local business.”
Initially, the city put out a request for proposals for a three-year tree service contract for which both WCA and Rod’s submitted bids. Staff had recommended WCA get the contract, as it had submitted the lowest bid, but the council this past April opted instead to reject the bids and put out a new RFP for a five-year agreement.
Both companies again went out for the contract, with staff listing WCA as the winner based on having the lowest bid. Councilors voted in June to redraft the solicitation process, prompting staff to draw up a new policy related to the procedure and selection of contractors.
The new policy, approved by the council in July, allowed the city to consider other factors besides cost when it came to tree maintenance contracts. In the latest round of bids, the city evaluated the three bidders—WCA, Rod’s and United Pacific—based on a 100-point system.
The evaluations, conducted by three city officials, were based on adequate knowledge of local conditions, experience of key project staff, work plan and approach, project experience and cost proposal, among others.
According to the city’s report, WCA again ranked as the top contender, receiving the highest average score of 85. Rod’s had received the lowest average score, 78, with United Pacific given an average score of 79.
“We were very surprised. We turned in the proposal—we worked in this city for 40 years . . . to see that an outside company was rated higher than us . . .” a confounded Rodriguez said of the company’s score. He added, “We know these trees by heart, so when it came down to knowing local conditions, executing the work plan, we’ve been here for 40 years, so getting that low score was surprising.”
According to the report, the city has about $232,000 remaining in this year’s budget for tree services. WCA’s price proposal came in at $219,200, with Rod’s coming in at $266,520. United Pacific submitted a bid price of $196,500.
The city noted that the bid prices represent a flat fee for “routine annual tree trimming at the fixed unit cost per tree.” Contingency costs would be added for as-needed services, such as emergency response and tree planting and removal.
If WCA is awarded the contract, that would leave about $12,000 left in the city’s budget to apply toward contingency costs.
Following the June meeting, when councilors voted to redraft the solicitation process, the city initiated a month-to-month service contract with Rod’s. Rodriguez last week said he was unable to comment on the status of that contract in light of the recent council meeting.
A decision to not go with Rod’s for the long-term contract, Rodriguez said, will have a “huge impact” on the company.
“We’ve been a staple in this community for a long time, and you know, the city contract has been a good amount of our work that we’ve had, so depending on what the future holds, it could be impactful to our business; it could drive us out of town,” Rodriguez said.
According to the company, 80% of Rod’s employees are San Clemente residents who have “a great relationship and rapport” with city staff and other city contractors, as well as with other business community members.
During the last council meeting, Rod’s received overwhelming support from the public, which had encouraged councilmembers to select the local company for the contract.
“We are very humbled and grateful to the community . . . this last meeting, we had 50 community members write in, so it’s really great that San Clemente residents are trying to stand up for businesses,” Rodriguez said.
However, according to Mahoney, many of those who spoke raised “inaccurate” claims against WCA that Public Works Director Tom Bonigut had to address and correct to the council.
“A lot of the information that is relayed by the public, none of that is under oath, and you don’t know who’s saying what; it’s inaccurate,” Mahoney said.
One issue that had come up was related to questions on the company’s safety record, which led Ferguson to ask Bonigut whether safety records were included in the consideration of the contract.
“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 on Tuesday said she’d like the city to evaluate the bidders’ safety performance by comparing their Experience Modification Rate—a number insurance companies use to gauge a company’s previous cost of injuries and future chances of risk.
“Based on all of the information people have brought forth, I’m here to represent the community, and if there are incidents they raised . . . those need to be looked into, and hopefully staff is looking into those,” Ferguson said.
As of this posting, Bonigut had not returned an SC Times’ call requesting comment.
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.