Las Vegas Sun

September 15, 2019

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COUNTY GOVERNMENT:

Commission accused of pro-union bias

Lowest bidder not awarded contract because of past violations, Sisolak says

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

Bruce Woodbury

Bruce Woodbury

Beltway widening

Current and former members of the Clark County Commission said a Tuesday vote — taking a Beltway-widening contract away from the lowest bidder and giving it to Las Vegas Paving — might set a perilous precedent.

The company that lost the bid, Fisher Sand and Gravel, has threatened to sue the county, alleging the commission’s pro-union leanings prompted it to violate bidding rules and award the contract to a company that, unlike Fisher, uses union labor.

The hearing on the contract appeared carefully orchestrated. An attorney for the International Union of Operating Engineers explained that state statute allows the denial of a bid if a party is determined “not responsible.” Commissioner Steve Sisolak then played video from a Phoenix TV news station about a pattern of violations by Fisher, which Sisolak used to argue that the company is not a “responsible bidder.”

Commissioner Larry Brown said he was uncomfortable impugning a contractor without providing the company an opportunity to defend itself. He asked for a two-week delay of the vote, but was denied by a majority of the commission.

The outcome didn’t surprise former Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, who said he saw an emerging pattern of politics over process on the commission before he left last year.

“I always had support of the unions in my election campaigns, but when it comes to county contracts, you have to put blinders on,” he said Wednesday. “You can’t take into account who is union and nonunion. You have to go with the low bid.”

Fisher’s bid to widen the Beltway between Tenaya Way and Decatur Boulevard was the lowest, by $4.6 million. Still, the commission awarded the project to Las Vegas Paving, which is considered a union company.

“I think it could have cost the county taxpayers a lot if you don’t play it straight down the line, if you don’t take the lowest contract,” Woodbury said, noting the cost of a potential lawsuit in addition to the more-expensive bid.

Woodbury said there was evidence of union influence over the Democratically aligned board in 2006, when commissioners rejected a land-use permit for Casino Ready Mix Inc. The company, whose workers are not unionized, provides cement for construction of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge.

Union members made their presence known as commissioners questioned Casino Ready Mix about allegations it was operating a concrete batch plant without a permit in the Eldorado Valley.

Four Democrats voted against Casino Ready Mix, and three Republicans voted the other way.

But within a few months a judge ruled commissioners had exceeded their authority because there had been no appeal of an earlier approval of the permit by the Planning Commission.

Shortly after the Casino Ready Mix vote, Commissioner Tom Collins told the Sun he had tried to persuade the company to pay union wages. He said his vote was not related to union issues, however.

Commissioners said the same thing following Tuesday’s vote.

Representatives of three unions — sheet metal, operating engineers, and building and trades — sat in the front row watching the commission deliberate on the matter.

“Honestly this had nothing to do with unions or non-unions; it had to do with, we want someone doing the work who isn’t going to cost us a lot of problems down the road,” Sisolak said.

To make that point, Sisolak played the TV news report, beginning one of the more memorable moments in recent commission business.

The report said a subsidiary, Fisher Industries, exceeded emission limits at a Phoenix asphalt plant, drawing about 1,400 violations. Residents complained about the smell.

Company President Tommy Fisher addressed the report, saying one complaint can account for several violations because each day it goes unresolved it counts as another violation. He also said complaints are common for almost all companies, especially large ones.

After the hearing, attorney Stan Parry, representing Fisher, said the company never had a chance to answer those charges. He said it was a “union set-up.”

“We will undoubtedly be able to prove that (commissioners) had huge pressure from the unions to deny Fisher,” he said. “I’m surprised that the union showed its hand so blatantly.”

Asked how he would prove commissioners were pressured by the union, Parry said “from statements (commissioners) made.”

Responding to Parry, Sisolak said he was never pressured by anyone. “Pressure is a pretty strong word,” he added.

That didn’t stop Parry from demanding that pro-union commissioners abstain from voting.

Commission Chairman Rory Reid interrupted him.

“OK, so you’re going to stop me,” Parry replied, then plowed ahead. “If they had a pro-union bias against my client, and that’s the reason they’re voting ...”

Rory Reid

Rory Reid

“That is very nice theatrics,” Reid said calmly. “Thank you very much.”

And then they voted.

Larry Brown and Susan Brager, who had asked for two weeks to look more closely at the allegations against Fisher, voted no. The rest of the board voted yes.

After the meeting Reid, who is considering a run for governor, was asked if a June endorsement by the Southern Nevada Building and Trades Council had anything to do with his vote for Las Vegas Paving. He replied that he had always received the union’s endorsement.

(The carpenters union endorsed Reid on Wednesday.)

Sisolak said Wednesday that the board had the right, defined by state law, to deny Fisher the contract. He said several environmentalists had contacted him to say the commission had made the right decision.

“I guess we sent a message that if you want to do business in Clark County your actions and past baggage or sins are going to follow you, be they good or bad,” he said. “There’s not much work out there and people are anxious for jobs. And they are going to fight for them using every means necessary.”

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