Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Counsel Tells Board to OK Bus Contracts 2 Companies Drop Plans to File Suit

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Counsel Tells Board to OK Bus Contracts 2 Companies Drop Plans to File Suit

Article excerpt

Byline: Laura Diamond, Times-Union staff writer

Saying he had no other choice, Jacksonville General Counsel Rick Mullaney yesterday struck down the School Board's decision to rescind contracts awarded to three national firms and one local bus company.

Mullaney directed School Board Chairwoman Susan Wilkinson to sign the $35 million contracts immediately. Wilkinson said she may sign them as early as this afternoon.

Mullaney cited the board's failure to follow legal advice and comply with binding opinions previously issued by his office requiring the board to competitively bid and award the contracts.

"I've been very reluctant to take this action. In the end, however, it was our clear responsibility and we had no choice but to void the action of the School Board," Mullaney said.

Two national companies that threatened to sue the board decided yesterday not to file suit after Mullaney's ruling.

Mullaney said he believes the board will follow his order.

"There are some very good people on this board . . . I know they will be respectful of this binding opinion," Mullaney said.

Board member Gwen Gibson, who has led the debate in rescinding the contracts, did not know what the board's next step would be. As of last night, Gibson had not yet read the 10-page ruling, but she was bothered by it.

"I've never heard of such bull," Gibson said. "He is overstepping his authority. I don't think they have the right to usurp the power of the Duval County School Board."

Under Jacksonville's charter, the General Counsel Office offers legal advice and has the final authority in issuing legal opinions relative to the consolidated government.

"Hopefully we are at the end of this now," said Wilkinson, who was the only member to vote against rescinding the contracts. "I am confident that we will have the buses needed and everything in place to get students to school."

For more than a month, the board has debated which contractors will bus more than 60,000 students next year. The task was one of the first public challenges the board has faced with its three newest members.

This has been the first time the board competitively bid the bus contract in the 54 years of using private contractors. The change was required under a binding opinion issued by Mullaney last year.

Two weeks ago, the board voted 4-2 to award the contracts to one local and three national companies. Members were pressured to keep the contracts local and Monday night they voted 5-1 to rescind their earlier action.

In explaining his ruling, Mullaney stressed that the four companies awarded contracts submitted proposals that were superior to those of the four companies formed by local operators. For example, if the board had opted to go with the local contractors it would cost about $49 million next year. …

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