Orange County Fire Authority Chief Keith Richter publicly apologized to county supervisors Tuesday for what he called an “unfortunate email” that surfaced last week showing an authority top executive suggesting special treatment of current ambulance vendors in a bidding process for their contracts.
That Sept. 11 email told current ambulance vendors that they should attend a private meeting to discuss a future call for bids.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer read the email aloud at last week’s public board meeting, prompting other supervisors to publicly threaten to remove the Fire Authority’s power to conduct ambulance bidding and to place the issue on this week’s agenda.
Supervisors backed down from that threat Tuesday, instead voting unanimously to acknowledge a commitment by fire officials to continually send the county all of their bid-related communications, something agency officials said they already do.
“I offer no excuses for this very poorly worded communication, and I accept responsibility on behalf of the OCFA,” Richter told supervisors from the public comment dais during their weekly meeting.
The email’s author, Battalion Chief Bill Lockhart, “now recognizes that it created a very strong impression of impropriety in the mind of anyone reading it,” Richter continued. “While there was no intent to show favoritism to any ambulance provider, he is very sorry for his role in this.”
Richter promised that authority staff would ensure that it doesn’t happen again. He said he recognized the importance of maintaining a fair process for public bidding.
Spitzer called Richter’s speech “powerful,” but reiterated that he was “very, very disturbed” by Lockhart’s email.
Yet it turned out that supervisors couldn’t follow through with their original threat without state approval, which County Counsel Nick Chrisos said would be a lengthy process.
Spitzer then noted the new policy he successfully urged Fire Authority to adopt, saying it’s gotten the attention of the authority’s board and sends a message “that they need to remain diligent in their oversight responsibility” over the bidding process.
The Fire Authority, meanwhile, declared that the new policy isn’t much different from the old one.
“Does it change what we typically do by procedure? No,” said authority spokesman Kelly Zimmerman, but it does now make it “a definitive requirement” that the authority send the county every email related to bids.
“It puts everybody kind of on notice that now there’s some teeth in this thing,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the county Health Care Agency said she didn’t have information on how the new approach differs from current policy.
Zimmerman also took issue with concerns that the bidding process has favored current providers.
“Is the process dirty? No, it’s not,” said Zimmerman. No vendors were excluded from attending the meeting in question, and a second meeting was held the next day specifically for all providers, he said.
According to Zimmerman, the first meeting’s purpose was to gather information from current ambulance vendors and let them know about new requirements, such as using 800-megahertz radios and a new type of insurance.
“We wanted to solicit input from the current providers to see what needed to be different in the process,” said Zimmerman. That approach is normal at the Fire Authority, but he anticipates the agency will invite all potential bidders to such meetings in the future, he said.
At Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, Chairman Shawn Nelson criticized the Fire Authority’s initial defense of the email, saying it was “ridiculous, and obviously it’s erroneous.”
He credited his fellow supervisors for prompting the authority’s new communication policy.
The reason OCFA acted so quickly, Nelson said, is supervisors gave them a “red-light, green-light option, … either get it together and behave yourself or we’ll get it together for you.”
He also noted that four Orange County cities have been in violation of ambulance bidding requirements. As of July, those cities were Anaheim, Fullerton and Buena Park, which haven’t put their exclusive ambulance contracts out to bid in more than 10 years. Nelson did not identify the fourth city.
Nelson said also that one of the four cities has shown little interest in complying, its officials saying they don’t believe the supervisors can do much about it. Nelson did not identify the city he was referring to.
Supervisor John Moorlach said recent issues at the Fire Authority, including charging for hazardous materials inspections that weren’t performed, lead to broader questions about the agency.
“You wonder where’s the oversight and what can we do to help you,” said Moorlach, wondering aloud “if it’s arrogance … or complacency?”
A top agency official replied that she and her colleagues understand the gravity of all the concerns.
“We take all of it very seriously and certainly don’t want to appear arrogant,” said Lori Zeller, assistant chief of business services at the Fire Authority.
Supervisor Pat Bates cautioned that supervisors needed to check the legality of their threats before issuing them. “We need to do a little more research before we take giant steps,” said Bates.
Supervisor Janet Nguyen, meanwhile, said the new policy strikes the right balance in ensuring integrity in the bidding process. “I actually like the compromise,” she said.
Supervisors also heard Stephen Wontrobski, an attorney from Mission Viejo who was kicked out of the meeting between the authority and the current ambulance providers.
He said the meeting had been billed as unrelated to the upcoming bidding process, something he viewed as “entirely deceptive.”
The Fire Authority stated that Wontrobski was asked to leave under the advice of its legal department, because he wasn’t a potential bidder.
“These are meetings for people who intend to do business with us, so when you have [the] general public there, that doesn’t necessarily bring something to the table,” said Zimmerman, the Fire Authority spokesman.
Within the next year, 21 of the authority’s municipal contracts for ambulance service are up for renewal. Care Ambulance Service is the dominant provider countywide.
Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.