NEW ORLEANS — When a traffic signal at Oak and Carrollton went out earlier this year, people were quick to jump on social media to question what took the city so long to fix it.
The workers at Jack B. Harper Electrical, a city contractor, also wondered. The company holds a city services contract to fix broken traffic lights, and they were ready and able to spring into action.
“It's technical detailed work that our client is specifically contracted to do,” said Jonathan Forester, one of Harper’s attorneys.
Harper, an employee-owned company based in Baton Rouge, has been under contract with the city since 2017, when it was the low bidder for the traffic signal work.
While the contract remains in place, the relationship has recently taken several bizarre turns. Since May, the city has been trying to award a contract for the same work to another company.
That led Harper to file a lawsuit against the city and obtain an injunction, yet the city is pressing ahead to try and bring on a second contractor at nearly four times the prices charged by Harper.
“Not only does this not make sense, not only is it not legal, but if the city is allowed to do this, they'll be paying another contractor nearly four times for the same amount of work the city already agreed to pay my client,” Forester said.
Harper was handling about $800,000 a year in repairs for the city when friction surfaced late last year as the city fell about six months and $400,000 behind in paying its invoices, Forester said.
While negotiating a payment schedule for the city to get caught up, Harper said it was caught by surprise when it learned the city was soliciting another bid for the same work.
The city’s move became even more baffling to Harper when, amid the dispute over unpaid invoices, the city awarded the company a one-year contract renewal in May.
“The contract has now been extended twice through June of 2020,” Forester said.
But the contract extension did not stop the city from collecting bids from other companies.
When Harper found out that the city was moving ahead, the company sued the city in Orleans Parish Civil District Court. Judge Rachael Johnson ordered the city to stop, issuing a temporary restraining order on June 11, records show.
Yet on June 12, the city opened a winning bid from Diamond Electrical, also out of Baton Rouge.
"They did not cease and desist the bidding. And so at that point in time, we were essentially blown away,” Forester said.
To add insult to injury, the low bidder was nearly four times more expensive as Harper.
“Their bid amount was for $4.6 million dollars,” Forester said. “So nearly four times what they've agreed to pay my client for the same scope of work.”
Harper was awarded its contract based on a bid of $1.2 million, the company said. The dollar amounts are calculated based on what the company charges for different types of jobs – known as “unit bid pricing” – so the total amount paid by the city fluctuates depending on the amount and types of repair work needed.
“When you award a contract to the lowest bidder, as it did with my client, you can't re-bid that work,” Forester said. “Which is exactly what the city is trying to do.”
Two influential trade groups – Louisiana Association of General Contractors and Associated Builders and Contractors – have followed the legal dispute with growing concern.
“To be so brazen after a T.R.O. was granted, the next day to re-bid the contract while you have a legal ruling against you. That's bad policy,” said Jeb Bruneau, president of the local ABC chapter. “You're going to have other vendors, other contractors, that are doing work in the city that are going to be shying away from doing that kind of work in the future.”
“It seems like in this case the city is just running roughshod over the law,” Bruneau added.
Murphy Foster III, general counsel for LAGC, said, “The blatant disregard of a district judges’ order in this case by the city is unprecedented. It is indeed worthy of contempt.”
A motion to hold the city in contempt of court was filed by Harper on June 17. Judge Johnson granted the motion, summoning the city to court last week, but that hearing was cancelled due to Hurricane Barry. The hearing has been rescheduled for Friday, July 19.
In its argument supporting the contempt motion, Harper’s attorneys wrote, “Jack B. Harper has been put in this unfortunate position of expending effort, money and time fighting the City for what is a flawless example of abuse of power. The city had multiple opportunities to halt the rebidding process as a result of demands by Jack B. Harper, and more importantly, the Order of this Honorable Court.”
The city declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. But in a response filed in court, city attorneys argued that the city had every right to solicit bids for another traffic signal repair company.
“The City has every right to engage another contractor for the same services that the City may, but is not required to, assign to Harper,” Deputy City Attorney Corwin St. Raymond wrote, citing a “non-exclusivity” clause in the Harper contract.
In its opposition to the contempt motion for allegedly violating the restraining order, the city, trying to thread a legal needle, wrote, “The TRO (temporary restraining order) enjoined ‘bidding, award or execution of any contract;’ (but) opening bids was not prohibited.”
Harper’s attorneys disagree, and they believe that the citizens who would ultimately pay for the repairs – at nearly four times Harper’s prices – would also disagree.
“For the tax-paying citizens, obviously, this is something we need to stop, in addition to being illicit under the public bid law,” Forester said.