By Shawn Raymundo
The city council this week awarded a long sought-after government contract for tree services to West Coast Arborists, likely veering the city away from potential litigation after multiple changes to the bid process prompted questions of favoritism.
The council’s 4-1 vote on Tuesday, April 20, concluded a year-long solicitation process that pitted West Coast Arborists, an Anaheim-based company, and the locally owned and operated Rod’s Tree Service against one another.
“We are very appreciative of the opportunity that the City Council has given us. We understand this was a long, enduring process but at the end I think the right decision was made for the benefit of the community,” WCA President Patrick Mahoney said in an emailed statement.
In three consecutive bid processes, the city ranked WCA as the top contender, each time beating out Rod’s, the city’s previous contractor for the past 40 years. However, whenever the contract was presented for the council to award WCA, the company came out empty handed as some councilmembers continued to voice support for Rod’s.
“Rod’s is a great company, which has San Clemente-based employees, San Clemente based ownership,” Mayor Pro Tem Gene James said during Tuesday night’s discussion. “I wanted to do everything to keep Rod’s.”
While the competition had seemingly reached an end last month, when the council voted not to award WCA, with the five-year contract, a decision by Rod’s to withdraw from consideration paved the way for the city to bring the matter back for reconsideration on Tuesday.
“Our family feels as though this process has gone on far too long. Out of respect for the taxpayers of our hometown, it is time to look towards the future,” the company wrote to interim City Manager Erik Sund on March 26.
“The City has immediate responsibilities that need to be addressed, and we do not wish to further slow or stall the process while waiting for an outcome that is unattainable,” Rod’s continued.
The two companies had initially competed for a three-year contract before the previous city council a year ago, on April 21, 2020, voted to reject both bids and put out a new request for proposals (RFP) for a five-year contract instead.
WCA had been the city’s recommended choice to the council for the three-year contract, having come in with the lowest bid. When the five-year contact came before the council in early June last year, WCA again had been the top bidder.
The council, however, voted to again turn down both bids and directed city staff to redraft the solicitation process altogether so the city could consider additional criteria and factors besides cost.
In early September, the four-person council considered the contract for the third time. Based on a slate of additional criteria in that RFP, the city evaluated bids from West Coast Arborists, Rod’s and United Pacific Services, again ranking WCA as the top candidate.
The council, during that meeting, was divided, having reached an impasse with Councilmember Kathy Ward and former Councilmember Chris Hamm voting against a motion supported by James and Councilmember Ferguson to reject the bids again.
At that meeting, City Attorney Scott Smith warned the council of the “significant (legal) exposure” the city could face by not awarding WCA with the contract, noting that the company won the bid three times based on criteria related both to price and other subjective factors.
“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 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.”
The following day, the city received a letter from the Construction Industry Force Account Council (CIFAC), an association of labor groups, that took issue with the city’s handling of the bidding process.
In the Sept. 2 letter, the group threatened litigation, citing the concern that the council was showing favoritism towards one contractor—a violation of government procurement.
Addressing the group’s threat during the council’s March 16 meeting, Smith reiterated his previous point that “when you redo a bid this many times, deviating from the recommended course is risky.”
Despite the warning, the council rejected WCA for the contract in a 3-2 vote—with Ward and Councilmember Chris Duncan voting in favor of WCA, while James, Ferguson and Councilmember Steve Knoblock voted against it.
In an emailed statement following the council’s meeting this week, CIFAC said, “we are very pleased with the San Clemente City Council’s decision to award the tree trimming contract to West Coast Arborists.”
Since September, the city had contracted with WCA for as-needed, emergency services under the city manager’s $25,000 spending limit. Anything beyond $25,000 requires approval from the dais.
With Sund nearly reaching that threshold, the council approved another $25,000 for as-needed emergency tree services for the remainder of the fiscal year.
Since that time, WCA had submitted a request for reconsideration while Rod’s had also dropped out of the running.
“Rod’s Tree Service has never wished for the City of San Clemente to be put into any kind of negative situation on our behalf,” Rod’s told Sund last month. “With potential litigation knocking on the door, and our inability to match such low bid numbers, it is time to take care of what you can control and we will do the same.”
During the council’s latest discussion on the contract, Ferguson said she would vote against awarding WCA. She claimed city staff wasn’t following the council’s previous directive to contract with WCA for emergency services the rest of the fiscal year.
“We set policy in a vote at the March 16 meeting that was to carry on without this contract until the end of the fiscal year,” she said. “We really need to make sure that when council gives directive, staff implements that.”
Ward argued that the $25,000 the city pays for emergency services wasn’t adequate enough to keep up with the annual trimming of 3,500 trees throughout the city.
“It’s starting to show,” Ward said.
Duncan further noted that the matter had come back for discussion because Rod’s decision to withdraw changed the circumstances.
“I’m going to support this because I think it makes financial sense and we need to that tree service in place,” Duncan said, adding, “We can’t continue to operate on an interim basis when we have a contract ready to go.”
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.