Omaha Council Pres. Gray: Concrete Contract Handling “Highly Suspect”
April 6th, 2016
Stern words from Omaha City Council President Ben Gray during Tuesday’s Council meeting; as KVNO’s Ryan Robertson reports, Gray and other Council members were upset with how an emergency concrete contract was…or wasn’t…awarded.
After taking last week off in honor of Easter, Council members began Tuesday’s meeting with a pair of proclamations.
Councilman Garry Gernandt, a retired Omaha police officer, formally recognized the work of area 9-1-1 operators as part of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.
Council President Ben Gray also proclaimed April 5th Jean Floyd Bell day, in honor of the longtime Human Rights and Relations Investigator for the City who died recently of a heart attack.
“Her work in the community for social change; that work needs to continue,” Gray said. “We stand on the shoulders of people like Jean Bell, and we would do a disservice to people like her if we didn’t continue to push and make social justice what it ought to be in this country.”
The Council quickly made its way to an item concerning the liquor license of Midtown Gas & Grocery, located near Columbus Park on South 24th Street. Ownership of the store changed hands and the new owners want to be able to sell single beers and small “airplane style” bottles of liquor.
Councilman Chris Jerram said the area the store is located in is part of a Community Development Block Grant, and as such, the store was subject to certain restrictions, like not selling single beers or shots.
“Since the restrictions came in at this location, there’s not been one complaint. There’s not been one loitering ticket. The trash is picked up daily, and there’s another store at 24th and Leavenworth to the north that when they came in, [they] agreed to the same restrictions,” Jerram told a lawyer representing Midtown Gas & Grocery.
Rather than letting the Council recommend the Nebraska Liquor Commission deny their application, the owners of Midtown Gas & Grocery amended their application to keep the restrictions in place, and the Council, in turn, voted unanimously to recommend approval.
Council members also unanimously approved several consent agenda items aimed at helping the homeless and near-homeless, including plans to build four, single-family homes that would be available for purchase by low-income residents. The homes will be built using several contractors on the City’s list of certified Small and Emerging Businesses (SEB’s).
It was the treatment of two SEB’s in another contract dispute, however, which upset Council President Ben Gray later in Tuesday’s meeting.
Speaking on behalf of Spencer Management, Justin Moore went before the Council to appeal the rejection of a bid his company submitted to be one of the City’s go-to contractors when emergency concrete repair is needed, like when a water main breaks.
Moore said he met with Michael Kleffner of Public Works on March 9th to discuss the contracts.
“We received a rejection letter on the 17th of March, it was dated on the 10th,” Moore told the Council. He continued, “we wanted a little clarification on that because if we were requested for information on the 9th, were we really given a fair opportunity to present that information if we had a rejection letter dated on the 10th?”
Kleffner said the early date on the rejection letter was essentially a miscommunication. He said he told a colleague to prepare the letter, but didn’t send it out until a few days later.
As far as why Moore’s bid was rejected, Kleffner told the Council the contractor was not using E-Verify properly to make sure the company’s workers were eligible to work in the State. Of the 11 people Moore listed on the project, only one had documentation proving they’d cleared the E-Verify system.
Moore told Council members his use of E-Verify had never been scrutinized before, which led to this exchange between Council President Ben Gray and Public Works’ Michael Kleffner.
Gray: [The contractor is] saying they’ve never had to do that before
Kleffner: That would be a mistake on their part, Councilman. Them not having to do that before would be them in violation of State law and them in violation of our city contracts.
Gray: But if they’re not asked, who’s in violation? Them or the City? Who’s in violation if they’ve never been asked?
Kleffner: I would say probably both, Councilman. But this being my first full year at the position, I took it on myself to ensure we were getting responsible bidders on contracts that I believe are important in nature in that they can affect our traveling public.
Gray essentially told Council members Justin Moore’s bid was subjected to an undue level of scrutiny, and could be considered “highly suspect” by minority business owners.
“[Spencer Management] submitted the appropriate bid. They were the low bidder. There is nothing I have seen that demonstrates that they can’t do the work,” Gray said. “That’s what we, as a city, ought to be concerned about; is to whether or not they can or cannot do the work.”
Councilwoman Aimee Melton took issue with Gray’s statement, and said the City needs to take a harder stance on issues like using of E-Verify.
“We have a lot of people that are legally here in this Country, that live in some of the most blighted areas of Omaha that can’t find work. People in North and South Omaha, they’re looking for jobs, they need jobs, and we’ve got employers that are able to maybe come in $200,000 less because they’re using undocumented illegal people and they don’t have to pay them as much.” Melton said, “That’s hurting the very people I think we’re trying to assist at Heartland workforce development and in our SEB program.”
In the end, the Council voted 5-2 to reject Justin Moore’s appeal of the bid rejection.
The Council could decide which small and emerging business will ultimately be awarded the contract at their meeting next week.