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Wednesday, Aug 4 1999
The Sacred and the Profane
It seems that you need goat entrails, tea leaves, the blood from roosters slaughtered at the stroke of midnight on All Hallow's Eve, and various other tools of mystic ritual to figure out what's going on as the Public Transportation Commission and the Municipal Railway struggle to award a $66 million contract to provide public transportation for disabled people.

Eventually, the contract will go to a "broker" firm that will enroll, and arrange taxi and van rides for, some 13,000 disabled San Franciscans. But eventually has already been a long time coming, and it seems like who gets this contract may depend more on the political needs of Willie Brown than on the transit needs of disabled people.

To recap the odd-looking process to date: In January, Muni put the para-transit brokerage contract out for competitive proposals. Three companies responded, including the current broker, a company called Cerenio Management Group Inc. CMG's main competitor was a national firm, Intelitran, which runs the disabled transit service for several East Bay cities.

City contract proposals are judged on two main grounds: 1) how much they cost the city, and 2) who has the better proposal for providing service to the citizens of San Francisco. If parts of this judging process are subjective, the judging results usually are not. A bidder gets a score, in points. Whoever has the most points wins. And when the Muni staff and a committee of experts added up the scores in April, CMG won on both the cost Muni must pay, and on the firm's proposals for serving the disabled.

But the Muni staff recommended that the Public Transportation Commission give the contract to Intelitran.

The commission sent that staff report to the dustbin, telling Muni staffers to start the process for evaluating the bids all over again.

About four months later, acting on the same information used in the first evaluation, the Muni staff decided that Intelitran had actually scored higher than CMG in the competition. So the staff again recommended Intelitran to the Transportation Commission.

This time the commission tabled the contract award. And that's where it stands, and may continue to stand until the end of October, when the current contract expires.

So far, this strange delay in contracting has flown under the radar of most local media. The San Francisco Examiner has reported on the controversy, but poorly, and no one else has said much about it at all. Certainly, nobody has addressed the troubling central question about the bizarre bidding process: Why are Muni staffers recommending that the city hire a company that will cost more, and proposes to do less, than a firm that has been doing the job, and from most accounts doing it well, for the better part of a decade?

Surely, politics is involved. But what kind? Whose shoes are getting shined?
Although specifics -- the who did what, exactly, to or for whom -- may take voodoo to unearth, the broader answer to this question is not hard to discover. And that answer comes in the form of a rather unsavory tale -- one we are getting accustomed to reading -- about how Willie Brown has disfigured the city contracting process, and scattered the appearance of favoritism into almost every nook of City Hall. In this case, the tale might be titled:

"How a Contract to Serve Disadvantaged San Franciscans Became Confused and Compromised When It Intersected With Willie Brown's Appetite for Political Money."

CMG has had good relations with the city's disabled community for the last eight years as it has provided quality service to the 13,000 disabled people for whom it arranges rides. It has not received a single complaint about its services from Muni staff, its president, Virginia Cerenio, says.

It was no surprise, then, that CMG was able to offer more and better service, yet bid $1.1 million less, than Pennsylvania-based Intelitran in the first round of competition for the disabled transit contract, just as it was no surprise that CMG was given the top score in that competition.

And that's why it was a such a shocker when the Muni staff bucked the scoring its own members had helped calculate and recommended that Intelitran get the deal. Immediately, disabled activists orchestrated an outpouring of support for CMG. When the Public Transportation Commission heard the first staff report recommending Intelitran on April 6, it faced an angry crowd of disabled people defending CMG.

"The community got on the phone and did that," says Bruce Oka, chair of the Para-Transit Coordinating Committee, a body that advises the Public Transportation Committee on disabled access issues. "We heard what had happened, and we said, 'This doesn't smell right.' "

And the Transportation Commission actually did its job, listening to the complaints and ordering the Muni staff to reconsider its contract approval process.

But then the San Francisco Examiner decidedly didn't do its job.
On July 21, the Examiner ran a queer little story that claimed CMG was under fire from lawyers and disabled groups because, allegedly, scores of eligible elderly people had been denied places in the para-transit program in violation of federal guidelines. The story, however, was all sizzle and no steak. The evidence cited to back the story's main assertion -- that CMG was denying service in violation of the law -- was weak and unconvincing. It was, to my eyes, a classic hit piece.

I'm not sure how the Examiner story originated. It would not shock me to the bones to learn that Intelitran had something to do with it. Whether Intelitran was or was not involved in the piece's origins, however, I am quite sure it would gall the Examiner -- a paper that has covered apparent corruption of the city contracting system better than anyone -- to know that its story helped a campaign aimed at steering public money in the direction of a Brown ally and campaign fund-raiser.

About The Author

George Cothran


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