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Commission ducks protest over bus-system contract

Updated Thursday, June 9, 2011 | 4:23 p.m.

After a heated four-hour debate that sometimes sounded more like a court hearing than a government meeting, the Regional Transportation Commission didn’t accept or reject a protest over its contract with a new bus company.

The failure to act on the protest is essentially the same as rejecting it, according to the RTC, but like every other detail of this contract battle, the parties involved also debated that detail.

For now, First Transit remains the winner of the bidding battle for the bus contract, but all sides involved will await an opinion from the state attorney general over a legal issue before going to court for a final decision.

Although the commission runs the valley’s public bus system, the actual operation is contracted to a private company, potentially worth as much as $600 million over seven years.

For the past 16 years, that contract has belonged to Veolia Transportation, part of a huge multinational corporation based in France.

But every few years the contract has to be opened to bidding. When that happened this year, a competitor, First Transit, offered a lower bid, as much as $50 million less over seven years.

First Transit is also a large corporation, based in the United Kingdom, and owns the Greyhound Bus line and operates McCarran International Airport’s rental car shuttles and the RTC’s paratransit service.

With so much money on the line, both corporations hired high-powered attorneys and lobbyists, who helped spread stories about the two companies, rally supporters to contact board members and passionately defend their clients in meetings.

But the board rejected the pleas from Veolia and voted 4-3 May 19 to grant the contract to First Transit.

Veolia quickly filed a protest, saying the process for the contract was flawed and that the commission did not properly approve the contract.

The protest was considered at today’s meeting, when lawyers argued their sides as if they were in court, and Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown, the commission chairman, had to act as judge.

Lee Roberts, representing Veolia, interrupted other presentations with points of order, saying some attorneys present were not licensed in Nevada and should not be allowed to advise the commission.

At one point, former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, who was representing First Transit, got up and yelled “Objection, your honor,” when a Veolia representative was speaking.

In the end, the board was unable to come to a consensus on the protest and the contract.

The commissioners voted on denying the protest, as was recommended by the RTC staff. Henderson Councilwoman Debra March, Boulder City Mayor Roger Tobler, North Las Vegas Councilman Robert Eliason and Mesquite Councilman David Bennett, the four who approved the contract last time, voted to deny the protest.

But that wasn’t enough to end the issue.

County Commissioners Brown and Chris Giunchigliani, and Las Vegas Councilman Steve Ross voted against the motion and Las Vegas Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian abstained from the vote, saying she had not been given enough time to make a decision.

Tarkanian was appointed to the board last month to replace outgoing Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, but she missed the last meeting because of a schedule conflict.

Even though a majority went against the protest, the vote did not satisfy the five-vote minimum for the eight-member board to take action.

So the board tried the opposite vote, to accept the protest.

All eight people voted the same way, so the motion failed 3-4.

Veolia attorneys say the RTC has to respond to the protest before the contract can move forward.

But that will not likely be the reason for future lawsuits.

Part of Veolia’s protest was that the initial 4-3 vote to grant the contract at the last meeting was illegal.

State law requires boards made up of elected officials to have a majority vote of all members to take action, whether or not all members are present.

Under that standard, the board would have to have five votes to approve the contract, even though only seven members were at the meeting.

Attorneys for the RTC and First Transit argued that the RTC is not covered under the state law regarding majority votes. Commissioners are appointed to the RTC by their respective entities, not voted on by the public and a ninth member, the director of the Nevada Transportation Department, is an ex-officio member who can only vote on certain issues.

Giunchigliani tried to separate the vote issue from the other parts of the Veolia protest and get the board to agree that a five-vote minimum should be required.

Her motion failed, 4-4, with Tarkanian joining the Veolia supporters.

But Brown directed the RTC staff to consult the state attorney general on the matter.

If the attorney general, who is identified in state law as being responsible for open-meeting laws, says the RTC is required to have the majority vote of all members, not just the members present, then the contract granted last month will be invalid, the issue will have to come before the commission again and First Transit will likely sue.

But if the attorney general says the RTC is fine with a four-person vote, the contract will stand and will likely be challenged in court by Veolia.

Some of the commissioners expressed special concern over the possibility of the attorney general deciding against their previous votes, since the meeting law says any violation is a misdemeanor crime.

But Kaplan said even if they were wrong, the board acted on the advice of its legal counsel in good faith and did not willfully violate the law, thus being unlikely to face personal criminal charges.

The RTC has until the end of September to figure it all out. Unless the attorney general or a court steps in, First Transit is set to take over the bus contract Oct. 1. If it’s not settled before then, the RTC may have to try to end Veolia’s current contract and go month-to-month, which could cost more money.

CORRECTION: This story originally reported that First Transit's bid was $50 million less per year, instead of $50 million less over seven years. | (June 10, 2011)

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