NORWALK — The City Council has approved a $409,000-a-year landscaping contract with a firm owned by a friend and political supporter of Councilman Mike Mendez.
The council also voted 4 to 1 Tuesday to increase its overall spending on landscaping from $291,000 a year to $713,800.
Mendez said the city needs to spend more money on landscaping to instill pride in the community. Council members have long complained of barren road medians and shabby parks.
"We're going to set the example for our residents to follow," Mendez said.
But Councilwoman Grace F. Napolitano blasted the decision, saying the money could be used for increased police protection and child care.
"I would rather increase the level of services to people rather than to plants," Napolitano said.
Residents offered varied opinions Tuesday night on whether the city should increase its landscaping budget.
But scores of constituents have complained about the council's previous decision to negotiate the five-year contract with Murray's Landscape Inc. of Santa Fe Springs without seeking bids from competing firms.
Murray's owner, Tom Murray, is a friend of Mendez and donated $1,000 in services to the councilman's 1988 campaign, according to campaign disclosures. Mendez said he also hired Murray's to do landscaping at his home and paid the firm $3,500. Murray also donated $200 to Councilman Robert E. White's 1988 campaign.
Napolitano criticized her colleagues for not seeking bids.
"We have gone out to bid on many a contract," Napolitano said. "We have saved the city money by doing so."
Mendez has said that more spending on landscape maintenance had been his idea and that he pressed to have the contract awarded to Murray's. But he said his actions were influenced by the quality of Murray's work, rather than friendship or political debt. White also denied that the campaign donation affected his vote.
"Norwalk deserves nothing but the best," Mendez said.
The quality of Murray's work is not being disputed by Napolitano or by city staff. But there was no staff recommendation on the matter.
City Manager Richard R. Powers declined to criticize the council's decision directly, but he said his staff would have handled the matter differently if the effort had not been headed by a councilman.
Powers said he would have preferred that the council wait until budget deliberations begin later this month before making a major spending decision.
The city manager estimated that the city will have about $1.2 million in additional revenue next year.
"We would have gone through the budget process with it," Powers said. "We probably would have gone through at least a competitive analysis" of the contract costs, he added.
State law does not require cities to seek bids on such service contracts. Nor does state law bar a councilman from voting on a contract involving a campaign contributor.
The city has been contracting with Landscape West Inc. of Los Angeles to maintain landscaping on road medians and in municipal parks and with Terrain Inc. of Glendale for mowing. The city pays those firms about $213,000 a year.
In addition, city workers perform some maintenance at an annual cost of $78,000, according to a report by Daniel E. Keen, director of urban planning.
On Tuesday, the council approved spending $304,800 a year for landscaping services performed by city workers and $409,000 a year for Murray's services.
The new landscaping services will include more extensive seeding and fertilizing, among other things. Grass clippings would be picked up at parks and facilities, rather than just at City Hall.
The contacts with Landscape West and Terrain will be terminated within 45 days, Keen said.
On Tuesday, Landscape West owner Barry L. Konier renewed his offer to the City Council to perform the services in the Murray's contract for about $90,000 a year less. He urged the council to shop for the best price.
But Councilman White said he was willing to pay for good service. "I'm glad to get Murray back in," White said. "I know the cost is high."