Wednesday, July 2, 2014

(Imperial County) Civil Grand Jury reports El Centro may have violated California Public Contract Code

July 2, 2014
Imperial Valley Press
By Krista Daly

A year-long investigation from the Imperial County civil grand jury revealed that the method in which El Centro bids out certain street projects may have been intended for only one bidder to win those contracts.
An Asphalt-Rubber Aggregate Membrane (ARAM) seal and overlay rehabilitation project is the preferred choice of the city of El Centro because it tends to last longer in a high-temperature environment. It has been utilized in 10 of 14 projects since 2005 and the city has awarded bids to contractors who could use ARAM, which up until recently was only one contractor — Manhole Adjusting Inc.
The system is not used for new streets, but it is a process saved for rehabilitation projects, said Abraham Campos, El Centro senior engineer. 
He said ARAM is just a piece of the project. The street gets grinded, regular asphalt is laid down, then ARAM is applied and the pavement system is the final piece.
“We like the material. We shouldn’t have to take an inferior performing material,” said City Manager Ruben Duran. 
Duran explained that experience is a requirement to be considered for a bid and some companies did not have the experience of putting down the material. Two companies now have that experience.
“When someone is producing exactly what you need, do you downgrade your specs?” Duran asked. “The other materials are not equivalent. If you’re asking us to take an inferior product, is that good for the taxpayers’ dollar?”
After reviewing documents and conducting interviews relating to the issue, the civil grand jury made two findings. The first is the “pre-qualification forms used in bid documents for all ARAM projects appears to have been written in a manner in which only one contractor can meet the requirement” because the forms are so specific as far as location and time frame of representative projects.
Secondly, the grand jury found El Centro Public Works has given the appearance that proper procedures were not followed. 
“California has applicable laws for such things which may have been violated,” according to the grand jury report. 
The grand jury made two recommendations off of the findings. The first is that Public Works needs to “eliminate the use of the pre-qualification forms or change the language to allow for fair and competitive bidding practices that comply with California Public Contract Code, specifically Section 3400.” Most importantly, El Centro Public Works must ensure it is not in violation of California laws or any other laws that apply here.
“I think we’re keeping with the council and being good stewards of the public’s money,” said El Centro Council Member Sedalia Sanders. “I don’t think any exclusive contractor was given this option.”
Sanders said the ARAM portion of the rehabilitation process was important in order to have the life expectancy desired for the roads. Despite having a higher cost up front, in looking at costs over five years or even 10 years, the ARAM projects will be less expensive to maintain than other materials, she said. 
Duran said the city has struggled with the grand jury through this investigation because the jury did not have one person who took the lead. He also said the city provided all the documentation it had available, but the grand jury had asked for reports that were not yet created, which the city could not do. 
“We will absolutely comply with the two (recommendations),” Duran said. 
He said the city is working to change the language of the bid documents to describe what they want in a more generic way. Their original document language came from a collaboration of input from the state Department of Transportation as well as other cities using ARAM. 
“We never intended to violate any of the laws,” he said. A written response will be drafted and taken before the City Council within 90 days.
Water/wastewater finances
El Centro’s Water and Wastewater departments were also investigated by the grand jury in 2012-2013 with several recommendations made. The city responded as it was required to, but stated it could not comply with one aspect of the findings.
That aspect, the uncollectables, was investigated again this year. In fiscal year 2012, the city had more than $500,000 in bad debt on its expense report, but it was a culmination of four years of uncollectables. 
The grand jury recommended implementing new strategies including requiring valid identifying information such as a Social Security number to open an account, having late fees based upon a percentage of the total bill, requiring a deposit before re-establishing service on a disconnected account and increasing reconnection fees to match the expense to the city. 
Duran said the city was concerned about sharing Social Security numbers and needed to further look into how to safely share that with collections agencies. The city does have a secure system in place now to provide identities, he said.
As for the increases in fees or requiring a deposit, Duran said the city does its best to work with the individuals who are running late on payments. The uncollectables are collected, but not to where it is going to cost the individual even more money when they are usually already struggling financially.
El Centro staff also monitors uncollectables on a monthly basis.
The grand jury concluded, “ appears the city has revisited policies and has considered changes that might help manage its uncollectable putting them in a better position of steward of public money and trust.”
No response is required from the city in regard to this issue.
Staff Writer Krista Daly can be reached at 760-337-3445 or

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