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Two OC supervisors are suggesting the lowest-rated food vendor out of five for a lucrative restaurant spot at John Wayne Airport, following closed-door discussions not open to the public.

The move by Supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Michelle Steel is the latest by supervisors to pick a low-ranked vendor after county staff held a competitive bidding process that the supervisors had approved. The rating system is designed to identify to strongest bidder.

In this case, the bidding process ranked Brodard Express last out of five, scoring 132, with the top two bids tied at 254 points – both from a Brea-based franchisee proposing a site for Jamba Juice or the OC-based chain Bruxie. County staff recommended the Jamba Juice franchise.

Bartlett and Steel, who are the board’s closed-door Airport Ad Hoc committee, want their colleagues to pick Brodard, the lowest rated vendor due largely to low rankings for its business plan and finances. The decision is up for a vote Tuesday.

The only public explanation the two supervisors have given for picking Brodard is that it “will further the County’s goal” in the bid requests the board approved in March “of bringing a local concept and flavor to the airport’s concession program.”

But those bid request documents show a local preference was already reflected in the bidding process, in which Brodard scored fifth.

One of the county’s goals in the bidding documents was a “focus on local and regional concepts,” and the largest scoring category for bids – totaling 30 percent of the final scores – included evaluating each bidder’s “Strength of brand(s) – local or regional concepts.”

Even with that taken into account, Brodard scored last of five. That’s largely due to low ratings for its business plan, financials, customer service, sustainability, marketing and financial plans, according to the final scores. Out of 90 available points between the three raters, it received 31 points – or about 34 percent.

Bartlett and Steel didn’t return phone calls on Thursday, Friday and Monday asking why they were recommending Brodard.

They haven’t explained why, if their reason for picking Brodard was a local preference, they chose Brodard over Bruxie, an Orange County-based chain that scored 87 percent higher.

The registered manager for Brodard Express said her team is “very excited” to be recommended, and declined to answer questions about the process by which they were chosen.

“Actually, I am not involved with that, so I can’t really comment [on] that,” said Jenny Lee, who was registered as the Brodard Express applicant’s manager and lobbying point of contact. She said early Monday afternoon should would check with others to see if someone could answer, and no one had called as of that evening.

The Brodard Express bid was submitted to the county on behalf of a company created last year called California Coast Food & Beverages LLC, whose manager is listed as Lee and place of business is registered to a doctor’s office.

Brodard Express hired as its county lobbyist Peter Whittingham, who previously lobbied for 16 years with Curt Pringle, the influential former Anaheim mayor.

Whittingham and his immediate family have directly contributed $3,000 to supervisors’ campaign funds this year, according to county records. Brodard executives and owners did not contribute to supervisors’ campaigns for the 10 years leading up to this year, and then contributed $1,500 in the first half of this year, according to the records.

Whittingham didn’t return a phone message asking how his client went from being ranked last to being recommended for the contract.

Supervisors have repeatedly awarded contracts to low-ranked bidders over the past few years, often from firms that donate heavily to their campaigns, hire lobbyists who fundraise for supervisors, or both.

In 2016, supervisors supervisors granted John Wayne Airport’s lucrative general aviation lease to a firm, ACI Jet, that was ranked fifth out of six by the county’s evaluation panel.

In the run-up to awarding that contract, the supervisors collected thousands of dollars in campaign donations from people who work or advocate for the companies vying for the lease.

ACI and its supporters outspent the top-ranked firm, Signature Flight Support, by 2-to-1 in contributions to supervisors in the second half of 2016, according to a Voice of OC review of campaign filings. ACI’s supporters contributed $7,700, while Signature’s supporters spent $2,750.

Signature Flight Support later filed a complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) alleging the supervisors had a “bias towards its campaign donors,” citing more than $23,000 in contributions to supervisors from ACI’s supporters.

County officials declined to comment at the time, and the FAA ultimately found supervisors were acting within their authority and dismissed the complaint.

County parking contracts also have drawn scrutiny. A single company, PCI, was repeatedly awarded millions in county parking contracts, including at John Wayne Airport, after county staff recommended another vendor.

PCI’s vice president was Lyle Overby, a longtime county lobbyist who supporter supervisors’ election campaigns with tens of thousands of dollars through his Committee for Improved Public Policy.

Overby and his clients often contributed to supervisors on the same day, an Orange County Register investigation found.

John Moorlach, a supervisor at the time who now is a state senator, warned his colleagues about the situation at an August 2014 supervisors meeting. He said the number of bidders dropped drastically the next time the parking lot contract was put out to bid.

“Others I think were discouraged [from submitting bids] because of a concern that perhaps we don’t look to hire anyone other than [PCI],” he said.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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