With a plan to install emergency call boxes along San Diego's freeways temporarily stymied by legal hurdles, a San Diego County agency on Monday decided to take preliminary steps toward rebidding the troubled project even as it pursues its courtroom appeals.
Seeking to minimize delays in installation of the call boxes, officials of the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies (SAFE) voted to lay the groundwork for a possible new round of bidding at the same time that it appeals Superior Court Judge Richard Huffman's ruling. Huffman ruled that the agency violated competitive-bid procedures when it awarded a $9.6-million contract last summer to an Anaheim firm whose bid was about $1 million higher than that of another company.
"It's a parallel course of action that gives us a backstop if this doesn't come out in our favor in court," said Granville Bowman, SAFE's executive director. "We want the delay to be as short as possible, whichever way this goes."
In a ruling last week, Huffman reaffirmed his decision last August in which he nullified SAFE's contract with Comarco Inc. of Anaheim and ordered the agency to award the project to the lowest responsible bidder.
Response to Cubic Petition
Huffman's original ruling came in response to a petition filed by Cubic Corp., a San Diego-based firm that challenged Comarco's receipt of the contract after Cubic's own bid, which was about $1 million lower, was rejected by SAFE officials. The 4th District Court of Appeal upheld that decision last month, setting the stage for last week's court action, in which Huffman denied SAFE's bid for a new trial.
SAFE officials have argued that the state legislation creating the agency exempted it from competitive bidding guidelines, adding that Comarco was selected because it was viewed as having more experience with the cellular phone system envisioned for the San Diego project.
Under the San Diego contract, nearly 1,000 call boxes will be installed along the county's 300-mile freeway system to make it easier for motorists to telephone for help in the event of automobile problems or other emergencies. The project is an outgrowth of the controversy that arose two years ago after one woman was killed and another was raped at gunpoint when their cars broke down on freeways.
'Protect All Our Options'
"We're all disappointed that we're spending time in court instead of installing call boxes," Bowman said. "But we didn't want to just sit around on our hands waiting to see how this was going to turn out, so we decided to try to protect all of our options."
SAFE's attorneys hope that the state Supreme Court will rule on their appeal by the end of the year, Bowman said.
If the delay proves lengthier, Monday's action by the SAFE board will give the agency another alternative, because it also set a possible rebidding procedure in motion. Under Monday's action, Techplan, the firm that helped SAFE prepare the original bids, was instructed to take preliminary steps toward developing a second bid package.
"We hope we have all the possibilities covered," Bowman said. "But the way this has gone so far, who knows?"