The chairman of the Board of Supervisors, spurred in part by recent allegations of problems with the way John Wayne Airport's new taxi contract was handled, said Thursday he plans to form an oversight committee of lobbyists, architects, engineers and staff members to review how the county awards contracts.
"The airport taxi contract wasn't the trigger," said Chairman Chuck Smith, "but it did give us incentive."
Last month, the county replaced one taxicab company that had held the airport contract for four years with another that had been in business barely four months and would have provided the county far more money per taxi passenger.
The losing cab company, A Taxi Cab, had the backing of the county's Airport Commission but failed to provide a state certificate of self-insurance, prompting the supervisors to hire the winning firm on a 3-2 vote. Smith was one of the dissenters.
"There have been instances where we had a close recommendation between bidder No. 1 and No. 2, with only a 2% difference separating them but one was recommended as the better company, and that raised questions on the board," he said. "I would like to see us getting out of questioning the process."
Smith has been unhappy for some time with the county's byzantine bidding process that awards contracts that are worth millions of dollars, and often results in staff recommendations that have "led to more questions" than answers. Some change might lessen "some of the controversy that still goes on with these contracts," he said.
Smith said he believes that procurement reform is needed in three vital areas: bidding, scoring and evaluation.
Smith asked Supervisor Todd Spitzer to join him on the new oversight committee. Spitzer, instrumental two years ago in urging reforms in the county's process of selecting contractors, agreed that the bid for airport taxi service "was an utter embarrassment" although he voted to replace the existing firm.
"I'm not coming to the table with any particular agenda," Spitzer said. "There are some issues that need to be looked at but I think we've worked hard to bring in a new system that works a lot better."
As board chairman, Smith said, he has had his office staff discussing the need for such oversight with representatives from architectural and engineering firms, lobbyists and also Shirley Grindle, a community activist and author of the county's campaign finance ordinance.
The committee's prospective members have not been formally selected yet but Smith said that it's certain that Grindle will be asked to sit on it. The committee's function will be to review the county's current overall system of awarding contracts and make recommendations to the board. Smith said he plans to announce the group's formation next week.
As it stands, the committee will include two county staff members, two representatives from either an architectural or an engineering firm and two lobbyists.
The airport taxi contract is the subject of an informal audit that began a week ago when county auditors secured the records involving the bidding process.
Peter Hughes, director of the county's internal audit department, said he initiated a "preliminary survey" at the airport after questions were raised regarding the taxi cab contract.
Hughes would not discuss any specifics of the inquiry. Instead, he confirmed the probe which is being conducted to determine whether a second, formal examination is warranted.
Once Hughes has the survey results, he intends to brief board members in closed meetings with the findings by the end of next week.
The department has a two-pronged focus, Hughes said: first, to examine how the contract was awarded, and second, to make recommendations, if any are needed.
According to Smith, the bidding system still needs some fine-tuning.
Before the county's 1994 bankruptcy, the procurement process consisted of the county staff endorsing a slate of finalists without a recommended favorite. County representatives seeking lucrative business with the county contacted supervisors either directly or through a lobbyist.
"The guy who eventually got the job was not the one who had a good performance record but who had the most influential lobbyist," Grindle said.
Smith recalled that when he took office January 1997, the county's procurement procedure "was terrible."
"I would go and ask for evaluation material from staff members and it struck terror in them because they were told by the old board not to ask for it and I thought that was wrong," Smith said.