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About-face council move shocks firms
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Ceres City Council members wrangled with city staff in a last-minute move on Monday to block a Sacramento firm from a professional services contract in favor of a Modesto engineering firm of which former Mayor Anthony Cannella is a partner.

The action, which stunned city staff members who worked months on selecting the best firm, also had at least two engineers stewing.

The city was poised Monday to issue a $171,500 contract to Wood Rodgers, Inc., of Sacramento, to design a new well at Smyrna Park. The firm has done extensive work with the city for the past three years. Three other firms expressed interest in the Smyrna well project, which includes assessing a well site, drilling a test hole, designing the production well and a final report. Others submitting proposals were AECOM and Provost & Pritchard Consulting Group of Oakdale.

Vice Mayor Ken Lane pushed for the city to drop Wood Rodgers and pursue a contract with North Star Engineering of Modesto. He said he wants to give more work to local firms.

"I have a problem if there is a firm locally," said Lane. "I want to see a local firm."

Rick Hanks of Provost & Pritchard wanted to know how the council defines local, saying his firm has three on its Oakdale design team. He said his firm has repeatedly been denied work with the city of Ceres.

"We have not developed (the concept of) what 'local,' is...," admitted Mayor Chris Vierra to Hanks. He expressed doubt that Provost & Pritchard was a local firm, saying he heard few work in Oakdale as most work is churned out at the Fresno office. "...Local is a real delicate thing. Local for me, in addition to where they're located, is how long they've been in business and are they truly local. At one point Wood Rodgers was local... they've moved everything to Sacramento."

Cannella, who resigned as mayor to become a state senator earlier this year, is a principal in North Star.

"It has nothing to do with Anthony Cannella," said Lane after the meeting. "And I have not talked to anyone from that firm."

Under state law, a city must hire professional services differently than the competitive bid process which public works projects undergo. Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are sent to qualified firms, then city staff pores through proposals to select the most qualified firm to pursue a contract with no legal obligation to compare costs of services. Acting City Engineer Mike Brinton stated that all four firms are qualified but that Wood Rodgers was selected by a city team of three as the most qualified firm.

Vierra said he was struggling with the issue.

"When I hear they're all qualified, I kind of lean a little bit toward local," said Vierra.

Vierra said his firm has been edged out of work with the city of Stockton which has turned to local firms for professional services. City Attorney Mike Lyions said some cities do practice discrimination against outside firms but noted that "so far those haven't been challenged." Lyions said the law requires contracts to be awarded to the firm that has "demonstrated qualifications" and "competence."

Ochoa at first called for the council to see all four proposals but later went with a motion of Lane to give the contract to North Star.

"I'd say Oakdale is a local firm," commented Bret Durossette. "It's in Stanislaus County."

Although it's not been shown that North Star would be less expensive to the city, Durossette asked Lyions why cities can't use contract pricing as a primary consideration.

"This is a government code section and it says that it cannot be based solely on price," said Lyions. "Making the initial determination in terms of demonstrated competence and professionalism to do the work is the primary guiding force."

He said cities may adopt criteria but that Ceres has not.

"There are questions how far a local government can go with regard to having preferences," said Lyions. "The City Council hasn't taken any formal ordinance action that would define local preference."

He suggested, however, that the council was "exercising their discretion" on Monday.

"I think 'local' is the most important thing we can talk about in this economy," commented Lane.

Durossette suggested first making a "blueprint of what is local" but later supported Lane's motion to pursue North Star. After Durossette suggested looking at the Oakdale firm's proposal, Lane pressed that the Oakdale office is a satellite office that farms out work to its larger Fresno office.

Vierra said he wants to see the council discuss the matter of local preference at a study session. He wants the city to consider resumes and location of persons who will be doing professional work "so that we know truly people working on the project are local."

Larry Ernst of Wood Rodgers was disappointed with to see an end come to the three-year working relationship with the city of Ceres, saying he felt "we earned the unanimous decision of staff." He noted that "local preference was not listed in the qualifications."