Contractor Who Lost Bid Accuses County of Favoritism

The contract wasn’t awarded to the lowest "responsive and responsible bidder," as required for projects governed by competitive bidding rules

April 20--A Glendale mechanical contracting firm is charging that favoritism led Ventura County to award a $1 million-plus maintenance contract to a competitor whose bid was $152,000 higher.

County officials said the allegation was false, saying their selection process was conducted properly.

"Each member of the evaluation committee was instructed as to the rules of conduct required, which included the mandate to act without bias," Paul Grossgold, General Services Agency director, wrote in a letter last week to the attorney for the Glendale firm, Acco Engineered Systems.

Acco attorney Dale Ortmann said the firm believes the county agency was "biased in favor of the incumbent bidder," Connecticut-based Emcor Group, which won the new contract.

Emcor "has been providing ... services to the county uncontested for 10 years," Ortmann wrote in a letter to the county last month.

"The county's intent to award the contract to the highest bidder without conducting a fair and impartial bid evaluation process is highly improper and detrimental to the taxpayers of the County of Ventura," Ortmann wrote in an April 8 letter to Grossgold.

"It's our strong belief that Emcor had the inside track," Ortmann said Thursday. Acco learned of the county's decision late last month.

The project involves preventive maintenance on heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems in dozens of county facilities, including office buildings, libraries and jails, according to a request for proposals issued by the county in September.

Emcor's bid was about $1.4 million, Acco's about $1.26 million and Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls' about $700,000, Ortmann said. Emcor's contract will be for slightly less than $1.4 million after final adjustments, Rosa Ceniceros, the county's procurement services manager, said Friday.

Ceniceros conceded the county didn't award the contract to the lowest "responsive and responsible bidder," as required for projects governed by competitive bidding rules under the state Public Contract Code.

That is because the county used the request-for-proposals process, which it routinely employs for non-construction-related products and services, she wrote in an April 3 letter to Ortmann. That process "does not require an award to the lowest-priced proposal," she wrote.

Rather, the award is based on criteria established in the request for proposals to determine the most qualified vendor, she wrote.

"Yes, it does take into consideration the cost, but we're not looking for the lowest bidder," she said. "We're looking for the best value. And value takes into account a lot of different things, such as proven performance and the ability to meet project requirements.

"Just because you're the incumbent, that doesn't guarantee you're going to get the award again," she said. "We don't go through the (selection) process just for the sake of going through the process. We go through the process because we are going to make a diligent attempt to get the best value for the county."

But Acco said "major components" of the proposed contract involve the repair and improvement of public structures and buildings, and therefore it is subject to the competitive bidding requirements of the Public Contract Code. The county disagrees.

Under those requirements, the contract should have gone to Acco, which considers itself the lowest responsive and responsible bidder, Ortmann said. Rather, the contract is being awarded to Emcor, the highest bidder, using a "largely subjective process," Ortmann wrote in his letter to the county last month.

Acco argues that Johnson Controls' low bid "was not fully responsive and should be rejected."

Johnson Controls officials declined to comment.

Mava Heffler, Emcor's vice president of marketing and communications, did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

Acco protested the county's stated intent to award the contract to Emcor, but Ceniceros denied the objection in her April 3 letter. Acco then filed an appeal of her denial, which was rejected last week by Grossgold.

Acco is now considering suing the county in Superior Court, Ortmann said. A decision is expected in the next week, he said.

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