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Contract stalled by protest

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Recall leader claims conflicts of interest

By Martin Salazar

Plans to award a city road improvement bid to Franken Construction Company and to enter into an unrelated contract with Ferrell Gas Company had  some audience members  raising concerns about conflict of interest during last Tuesday’s special City Council meeting.

At issue is the fact that Councilman Vince Howell works as a manager for the Better Stop convenience store, which is owned by the Franken family, and Mayor Alfonso Ortiz’s son is a manager at Ferrell Gas Company.

Lee Einer, one of the leaders of the mayoral recall effort, criticized the city for placing the items on the agenda of a special Council meeting that was being held at 4 p.m. when, he said, most people are unable to attend.

“It seems to be what the city does when (it is) going to try to push through something that’s not terribly popular or maybe just a little bit smelly,” he said during the public input portion of the meeting. Einer urged Howell not to vote on the Franken matter, saying he had a conflict of interest, and he urged the mayor not to vote on the Ferrell Gas matter if the need arose to break a tie on the item.

Other speakers echoed his comments.

In the end, the Council postponed action on both matters. 

No action was taken on the Legion Drive road improvement bid because another bidder is contesting the city’s decision to throw out his bid and because City Attorney Dave Romero disagreed with a city engineer’s recommendation to award the bid to Franken Construction.

The project involves improvements to Legion from Eighth Street to Old National Road, City Public Works Director Carlos Ortiz said. He said Franken’s bid came in at $257,000.

But before that item was continued, Howell asked for an opinion from Romero on whether he could vote on any measure involving the Franken companies. Romero said that unless a governing board member has a direct financial interest in an item or is being pressured by his employer to vote a certain way he or she is not precluded from voting.

Councilman Joey Herrera questioned that advice, saying that the city charter seems to contradict it. Romero countered that under state statutes Howell is allowed to vote.

Howell also took exception to members of the audience calling his integrity into question, saying he wouldn’t benefit financially from a contract being awarded to Franken Construction and adding that nobody instructs him how to vote.

“I am an independent person,” Howell said. “I vote on facts. I hold my integrity high.” He added that he thinks the charter needs to be reviewed.

The Ferrell Gas Company contract involves the propane that the city purchases. Currently, the city puts out a monthly bid and awards the contract to the lowest bidder. City Finance Director Pamela Marrujo told councilors that the city needs to award an annual contract so that the company that gets the contract can be responsible for providing maintenance on the tanks and for ensuring that those tanks are certified.

Ortiz stressed that he never pushed for any action on the matter, and he said wouldn’t benefit from the measure, regardless of what the city ends up doing. Nevertheless, he said, he will abstain if it comes down to a 2-2 vote.

The bid submitted by Ferrell Gas was for nearly 25 cents a gallon above its cost of the gas. The nearly 25 cent hike would go toward the company’s profit, along with covering its costs, such as transporting the propane, city officials said. Four companies submitted bids, but Ferrell Gas had the top rating.

The measure was continued after Herrera raised questions about the cost the company would charge to service city propane tanks. City Manager Timothy Dodge said Ferrell Gas submitted a labor rate of $75 an hour, while Amerigas submitted a labor rate of $60 an hour. 

 Councilwoman Tonita Gurule-Giron also raised concerns that the Council hadn’t been given sufficient information on the item.