Supervisors Raise Concerns About Fire Authority Bid Rigging

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Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer raised questions Tuesday about an odd email solicitation coming from the Orange County Fire Authority telling current ambulance vendors that they should attend a private meeting to discuss a future call for bids the fire agency is considering.

Spitzer’s questions immediately drew concern from the rest of his colleagues on the board of supervisors, who have now asked that the fire authority’s power to issue bids for the county government be considered for termination.

After hearing Spitzer read the email, supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson ordered the issue be placed on the agenda for next week’s supervisors meeting.

“It’s time to get a handle on this,” Nelson said.

“I’m completely floored by this email,” Spitzer said, adding that the Sept. 11 email sent by authority Battalion Chief Bill Lockhart, who oversees the agency’s emergency medical services division, “appears to give preferential treatment to current providers.”

The email, released by Spitzer under the state’s public records act, describes the rationale for a Sept. 25 meeting to discuss a bid process for ambulance services:

We will be hosting a “current provider meeting” the day before this open RFP [request for proposals] meeting to provide you, our current providers, the opportunity to address any of your concerns in a setting that doesn’t involve every other ambulance company in Southern California. We won’t state that it’s specifically an RFP meeting that’s exclusive and excludes other providers who aren’t current providers as that would suggest an unfair practice, so we’ll consider it an open meeting in terms of other issues of concern as well; but, of course, the RFP process will likely be the primary focus. We just want to provide you, our current providers, a more “intimate” forum in which to address your concerns.

The email was distributed to officials at companies including Care Ambulance, Americare Ambulance Service, Emergency Ambulance Service, Doctors Ambulance Service, Shoreline Ambulance and Medix Ambulance Service.

“I can’t defend the email,” said authority spokesman Kelly Zimmerman after reviewing the matter with top officials and confirming ongoing discussions on the issue between Spitzer and authority Division Chief Scott Brown.

“It’s an unfortunate choice of words. It reads poorly, and there’s not much to say. He owns it. We own it.”

Zimmerman said there was no intent to skew bids but instead have an “informal, informational outreach” aimed at offering current contractors a sense of how the process would work.

“This was an opportunity for us to get the people who would be players up to speed,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman added that the RFP for ambulance services hasn’t begun. He said there are solid checks and balances, because bids will ultimately be judged by independent evaluators and final decisions reserved for cities and state regulators.

“We simply administer the process,” Zimmerman said.

A state agency has already informed three Orange County cities providing emergency medical services for a large swath of the region that they must hold new competitions for their ambulance contracts in order to secure important legal protections.

Anaheim, Fullerton and Buena Park must put contracts out to bid that are now held exclusively by a single ambulance firm or end up vulnerable to a restraint of trade lawsuit by other ambulance companies in the Orange County market, according to the California Emergency Medical Services Authority.

These cities are in this position because they have not held a competitive bid for their ambulance service in 10 years, which puts them out of compliance with a state law governing exclusive ambulance contracts, according to the state officials.

Citing the warnings from the California Emergency Medical Services Authority, Nelson urged a public discussion and wondered aloud whether “we have some bigger problems here.”

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosanana.

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