CLEARWATER — Cincinnati-based First Transit has sued the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, alleging it lost the county's trolley contract because a "who's who of Clearwater" lobbied the board to choose the less qualified Jolley Trolley.
Jolley Trolley has been running its trolley service in north Pinellas County since 1982, and PSTA began subsidizing the company in 2009 without ever putting the contract out to bid.
When the county transit authority advertised the contract for the first time in November, Jolley Trolley and three competitors responded.
A selection evaluation committee ranked First Transit's application the highest, and at a meeting on Feb. 22, PSTA chief development officer Cassandra Borchers recommended the board award the five-year, $15-million contract to the firm.
But after two hours of public comment — and more than 40 people speaking in favor of maintaining Jolley Trolley — the board voted 14-0 to keep the status quo.
In the lawsuit, filed April 7 in U.S. District Court, First Transit said the board members' statements proved "the coordinated efforts by Jolley Trolley to ensure its maximum impact were successful in influencing or swaying the board's vote."
First Transit wants the court to declare PSTA violated state and federal procurement laws, and require the county enter a contract with its firm.
PSTA officials, however, insist the selection was proper.
In a response to First Transit's written protest before filing the lawsuit, PSTA CEO Brad Miller said the board was not bound by the evaluation committee's recommendation. Miller said the board was allowed to consider PSTA's experience with Jolley Trolley and had the right to waive some of the criteria Jolley Trolley did not meet, including the height specifications for trolleys and the fact that four of its company vehicles did not have side-loading wheelchair lifts.
"The board is not just a rubber stamp of the committee," Miller said.
In its final scoring, the evaluation committee gave First Transit 88.69 percent and Jolley Trolley 86.18 percent. Jolley Trolley beat First Transit in three of the five evaluation categories, but the company's overall score was pulled down because its owners are not socially or economically disadvantaged.
Board member Doug Bevis said he was voting for Jolley Trolley "based on the existing level of service being provided," according to Miller's letter.
Miller refuted First Transit's claim the board used an improper measure of local preference, saying "the board can consider PSTA's own experience with a vendor, good or bad, in awarding a contract."
He also took issue with the lawsuit's claim Jolley Trolley broke PSTA rules because the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce sent an email blast asking members of the public to attend the Feb. 22 meeting to show support for Jolley Trolley.
Miller said the emails did not constitute lobbying. Instead, he said, they echoed the sentiments in the chamber's official letter of recommendation included in Jolley Trolley's bid application.
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"There is nothing in the emails that indicates that they were sent on behalf of or at the behest of Jolley Trolley," he said.
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.