The Orange County Transportation Authority this month cancelled and then reissued a request for proposals for a multimillion-dollar public relations contract after former OCTA director Curt Pringle — whose firm’s bid for the contract was ranked lowest — complained that an authority employee improperly contacted other bidders, OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik has confirmed.
Zlotnik declined to specify the nature of the contacts or how Pringle’s firm, Curt Pringle & Associates, might have been unfairly disadvantaged, saying the details are part of a confidential personnel matter. Zlotnik acknowledged that the employee who allegedly made the contacts was disciplined but declined to name the employee.
“The process that OCTA followed was to ensure the procurement was handled in a transparent, honest and ethical manner,” Zlotnik wrote in an email to Voice of OC.
The six-year, $4.7-million contract is for public relations work relating to the Interstate 405 widening project, which will add another lane in both directions on a 14-mile stretch of the freeway.
The request for proposals was first issued on July 23. OCTA staff ranked the bid from Pringle’s firm third among three bids submitted. The top-ranked firm was San Diego-based Simon Wong Engineering, followed by Seattle-based PRR Inc.
Pringle called OCTA to complain about the alleged improper contact after he and the other bidders had been informed of the rankings. Zlotnik said.
Pringle did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Pringle, the former Anaheim mayor who sat on the OCTA board of directors between 2005 and 2010, maintains considerable influence and high-level contacts at the agencies where he served, meeting and dining regularly with top bureaucrats.
Despite Pringle’s close relationships with OCTA staff, Zlotnik says that the source of the complaint did not affect the decision to cancel and reissue the request for proposals.
“Regardless of the source, we would without hesitation have followed the same procedure — engaging Internal Audit, looking into the matter and discussing it with legal counsel,” Zlotnik wrote in an email to Voice of OC. “In fact, for a variety of reasons, about three times a year OCTA cancels and reissues an RFP [request for proposals].”
PRR Principal Colleen Gants said that her firm had no contact with OCTA officials after the request for proposals was released. She wasn’t contacted during OCTA’s investigation into the matter, she said.
Gants said that if Pringle had knowledge about an improper contact, then his challenge could have been good for everybody.
“I think when he speaks, people will listen,” Gants said. “As long as he doesn’t take his influence and misuse it, which I don’t think he has.”
PRR has decided not to bid for the second request for proposals because the firm doesn’t have a strong enough local presence, Gants said. And unlike the first request for proposals, the second request doesn’t include a need for toll lane expertise, which is one of PRR’s strong suits, she said.
Simon Wong Engineering officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Orange County Supervisors John Moorlach and Shawn Nelson, who sit on the OCTA board, said it was difficult to publicly speculate on how Pringle might have known about the alleged contacts. Nelson pointed to other ways Pringle could have known about the contact other than using his contacts at OCTA.
Both supervisors said their primary concern is that the bidding process is fair.
“I think the vendor that receives the highest score should be selected … unless there is some sense of impropriety involved,” Moorlach said.
Beyond the process of obtaining the contract, Moorlach questioned the need to pay a consultant $4.7 million over six years to conduct the public relations campaign.
Compensation for the services would amount to more than $65,000 per month, which brings to mind the controversial $100,000-per month public relations contract that the Orange County Great Park had with Forde & Mollrich until this year. That contract is now significantly smaller.
“If staff’s doing a great job, why even pay for a firm at all?” Moorlach asked, regarding the OCTA proposal.
According to the request for proposals, OCTA officials hope that informing people about the necessity of the project will lead to more tolerance of the negative impacts, such as noise and dust from construction and vibration.
The contract would require the consultant to “inform motorists, merchants, employers, local residents, elected officials, civic organizations and government agencies about project parameters, as well as anticipated construction impacts and steps that can be taken by OCTA and the contractor to minimize those impacts,” according to the request for proposals documents.
The contract’s scope of services includes a long list of tasks, including two special events to “integrate the community” into the project, handling media relations and assembling a “comprehensive public outreach plan” that includes 17 goals, such as “develop and disseminate construction/detour information to visitors planning trips to venues in the area.”
Gants said the amount isn’t extraordinary for a major public relations contract after incorporating employee salaries, printing, mailing and other costs. “These communication contracts can get pretty big,” she said.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the term of the OCTA public relations contract. We regret the error.