After nearly five hours testimony over two days in the Dallas School District bus contract legal battle, Luzerne County Judge Michael Vough seemed to boil the issue down to a single point.
“Why rebid?” he asked attorney Howard Levinson, representing Dallas. “That’s the ultimate question?”
The usually unflappable Levinson seemed to hesitate.
Only moments earlier attorney Jonathan Comitz, representing Emanuel Bus Lines in an effort to reclaim a contract lost after a school board vote last month, had said there would have been no legal battle if the school board had not given contractors a chance to submit revised bids after initially awarding the job to G. Davis Inc. of Pike County.
“I think the school board may have been bending over backwards to accommodate the local guy,” Levinson told Vough, then adding, “They shouldn’t have.”
The exchange came after the two sides spent hours painting starkly different pictures of the same events.
For the first time in decades the school board had decided to seek competitive bids for bus service, receiving two, and voting to give the job to G. Davis, which had offered 22 new, propane-fueled buses at about $83,000 less per year than Emanuel. The public balked, and at a meeting a week later the board agreed to let both sides offer new proposals.
Only Emanuel did, and district Business Manager Grant Palfey determined G. Davis was still about $7,600 lower. The board voted a second time for G. Davis.
The two sides landed before Vough June 20, when Jeff Emanuel, owner of the bus line, testified he would have to close his business if he lost the contract. Emanuel said he had never sought work with other school districts because he didn’t want to put some other bus company out of work, and he noted his company pays more than $5,000 in taxes to the school district.
Business manager testifies
When the hearing continued Wednesday morning, Palfey testified at length about the process leading up to the vote by the board. Under questioning by Comitz, Palfey said he had concerns about Emanuel’s ability to live up to its second offer, which substantially lowered the charge for daily runs, added six newer buses to the fleet and increased insurance coverage from $1 million to $5 million.
He noted Emanuel’s first proposal was 9 percent higher than his current contract, which expires June 30.
Comitz focused on one key argument: The request for proposals drawn up and sent to interested bidders was too ambiguous in what was required, making it impossible for Emanuel to give a truly competitive bid.
Specifically, Comitz contends the district did not explicitly ask for newer buses that would increase state subsidies, which are based partly on the age of the bus fleet. The older the bus, the lower the state subsidy.
In the rebids, Emanuel was the overall lower bidder until the state subsidy was considered.
Palfey conceded that some requirements listed in the RFP were ultimately not enforced in the contract with G. Davis, such as having the company provide a full-time dispatcher in the district office. Palfey said those items were included in the RFP to get an idea of what they were worth, not because they were needed.
Levinson attempted to counter the ambiguity argument by having Palfey recite specific parts of the RFP and other documents that, he contended, showed the requirements were explicit and provided to prospective contractors. He also noted that if there were any questions, Emanuel could have raised them at a pre-bid meeting for vendors with district officials, or at any of several school board meetings he attended when the board made the initial vote and the vote to allow rebids.
G. Davis’ attorney Lars Anderson, who had successfully argued to be allowed to participate in the hearing, questioned General Manager Richard Davis about his company’s financial commitment since winning the Dallas contract.
Richard Davis said the company has ordered new buses at a cost of $2.1 million that cannot be recouped and spent close to $50,000 in training, equipment and background checks for new hires.
At one point, Comitz attempted to introduce what has been the elephant in the room for some opponents of G. Davis, asking Palfey about concerns that one employee at G. Davis has a criminal background that would legally bar the employee from being in contact with students or on school property.
Issue deemed irrelevant
Both Anderson and Levinson objected, arguing it was irrelevant to the questions at hand. “If that was an issue,” Levinson said, “put it in the complaint.” Vough sustained the objection.
District Solicitor Ben Jones III, who is not representing the district in this case because he had been involved in the contract decisions as solicitor, has said that issue could be handled by including language in the contract with G. Davis barring the employee from coming in contact with students.
Jones has also said the decision to allow G. Davis and Emanuel to submit new proposals (they were the only two to submit original offers) was legal because the RFP had language that explicitly allowed such a move if the board deemed it advantageous.
Vough promised to issue a written ruling by the end of business today.