One of the bus benches soon to be removed can be seen on Wilshire Boulevard.… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
The Los Angeles City Council on Friday approved a 10-year contract for the installation of up to 6,000 bus benches, turning back a last-minute proposal to shield the existing contractor from having to pay the city any outstanding debts.
On an 11-1 vote, the council replaced Norman Bench, the current vendor, with Martin Outdoor Media.
Councilman Mitch Englander, who received $5,000 in campaign contributions in October from individuals affiliated with Norman Bench, cast the lone vote against the winning bidder. "I question who these guys are … [and] if this is a reputable company that will be around," he said.
One hour before the vote, Englander and Councilman Dennis Zine submitted an amending proposal that would have spared Norman Bench from making new payments to the city in the event that public works officials conclude that the company failed to turn over a share of its advertising revenue from signs on its benches.
Public works officials have accused Norman Bench of failing to disclose how much money it had collected from its ads. The city had the option of sharing in that revenue but failed to ask Norman Bench for its financial information until February 2010, which appalled several council members.
Andrea Alarcon, president of the Board of Public Works, told the council that Norman Bench could owe as much as $1 million. Her father, Councilman Richard Alarcon, said it would be irresponsible for the city to forfeit its ability to collect on unpaid bills from Norman Bench or anyone else.
Faced with no support for their plan, Englander and Zine allowed their proposal to be referred to a committee for further discussion. But Zine complained that the Board of Public Works had long been negligent in collecting unpaid revenue.
"That's the outrageous part about this," he said.
Steve Sann, chairman of the Westwood Community Council, said the Englander-Zine proposal was similarly troubling. "To relieve a company of potential debt without knowing how much they owe you seems to be an outrageous idea, and a majority of the council agreed," he said.
Friday's vote probably will not end the debate. Ben Reznik, a lawyer for Norman Bench, said his client is still considering a lawsuit alleging a conflict of interest in the bidding process.
Reznik said his client also doesn't know when it will remove its benches but wants to keep collecting ad revenue as its contract winds down. "If the city is uncooperative in this transition phase, then I expect those benches will come out earlier," he said.
Andrea Alarcon said the winning bidder has hundreds of benches available on an emergency basis if the existing ones are ripped out. "We can respond with a crew … within 24 to 48 hours," she said.