When the Huntington Park City Council changed its senior citizens dial-a-ride contractor last year, it raised some eyebrows in the community.
The council selected Metro Transit Services for $600,000 a year with annual increases, even though the firm's bid was was nearly $200,000 a year higher than what the incumbent contractor, Fiesta Taxi, bid.
The October decision was the second time city leaders had awarded a contract to Metro Transit Services.
Metro Transit hired as its general manager Mario Beltran, owner of a political consulting firm that worked for a campaign committee that promoted the council majority. He had no experience in transportation and a criminal record involving misuse of campaign funds and filing a false police report. It also hired Councilwoman Graciela Ortiz's brother, an unpaid volunteer to his sister's council campaign.
Council members say these connections played no role in their decisions to award contracts to Metro Transit, which they thought would serve the community well.
City officials said in a staff report that they analyzed Fiesta Taxi's bid and concluded that the vendor had given an inaccurate price quote. Based on the level of service and Fiesta Taxi's rate, the bid should have been more than $600,000 annually — just slightly more than Metro Transit's proposal, the staff report said.
City Manager Edgar Cisneros said at the council meeting that Fiesta Taxi's service had consistently exceeded its budget. The city later completed a study of the service and made cuts that records show brought costs under control.
There were no scoring sheets — a standard document in local government contract bidding — available at the meeting to show how and why both contractors were ranked, something Fiesta Taxi's representative, Marco Soto, pointed out during public comments.
The only council member against Metro Transit was so concerned about the vote that he threatened to report it to authorities.
"I will talk to the D.A. about this," Councilman Valentin Amezquita told his colleagues at the meeting. "Don't erase the [council meeting] video."
In an interview, Amezquita said he couldn't get an explanation for how staff concluded that Fiesta Taxi's price quote was inaccurate and questions why Metro Transit was selected.
The mayor at the time, Graciela Ortiz, dismissed Soto's concern about the lack of scoring sheets. She emphasized at the meeting that the complaints about Fiesta Taxi's service as a good reason to change contractors. By Soto's count there were three "verified complaints" from residents about Fiesta Taxi's service.
"Three people is three people too much, in my eyes," Ortiz said. "You're telling me about the scoring sheet, but please understand we represent the residents of Huntington Park."
City records show complaints rose sharply after Metro Transit took over the dial-a-ride service, going from a handful to more than two dozen within a few months.
Council members say that's because they are more closely tracking complaints since Metro Transit got the contract.
But Cisneros, the city manager, was also unhappy with how Metro Transit was responding to concerns from residents. An elderly woman said she was left stranded in the middle of a rainy night with no Metro Transit drivers to pick her up, and the city manager grew increasingly frustrated when the company's vice president, Victor Caballero, failed to respond.
"This is concerning and unacceptable," Cisneros wrote in a Feb. 14 email to Caballero.