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At each regular meeting, City Council routinely approves the award of contracts to vendors who have been selected by City staff, through a bidding process, to provide some service to the City at a negotiated cost.

The wheels fell off this system at the Feb. 25 meeting, when the Administration and Public Works Committee voted 5-0 to reject a contract award to Mundelein’s ATR Transmissions for the repair of the transmissions in City vehicles.

The bid raised eyebrows because ATR, the incumbent shop, was the only vendor to complete the bid process. Bid packets went out to nine transmission shops, five in Evanston, but for various reasons only ATR responded.

Jafar Santarage of J&B Transmissions, 1905 Greenleaf St., appeared before the Committee to explain why his company had failed to place a bid. The questionnaire sent by the City mentions the makes and models of vehicles needing transmission work, but such information is incomplete, he said. The questionnaires did not specify the drive train, and different drive trains can result in a transmission price variation of up to $1,200 per vehicle, he said.

Another transmission shop, Golf Crawford Auto Service, echoed J&B’s complaint in written materials provided by City staff. GCAS explained they did not prepare a bid because it was “not feasible to respond” because of “variations in types of labor and parts pricing.”

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, called the transmission bid a “rare opportunity to hear what happens behind the scenes” during the bidding process. “No one else responded,” he said. “Either we’re getting a really good deal or this isn’t really feasible.”

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said that the City was in the midst of making changes in the purchasing department and that with “new leadership in purchasing we should be better.” He then invited Council to reject the proposed ATR contract and send it back out for rebid after the transition to a new bidding and purchasing leadership structure was complete.

Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, agreed that the City should “hit the reset button.”
Suzette Robinson, Director of Public Works, said she was not convinced hitting a reset button was possible. “The contractor who won [ATR] shared his price,” she said. Pricing is now part of the public record and all subsequent bidders will know the winning bid.

Rather than rebidding right away, the City’s chief operating officer said the City could do individual contracts as each transmission needs work rather than have “a captive, one price for all transmissions contracts.” The result may be higher cost to the City, he said. The ATR contract would have cost the City $28,615 per year, or about $1,100 per anticipated transmission replacement.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, who is not on the A&PW Committee, said he was “not totally clear what the problem was with the bidding process. … It’s going to be hard to get vendors to bid on something if this is what we are going to do [reject the contract.]”

As committee members explained the reasoning behind the decision, Ald. Wilson remained unconvinced that the bid should be rejected. “I am still troubled by rejecting this bid,” he said. “I sure don’t want to see something like this happen again.”

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, “I think this is a different case. … The current vendor was the only bidder.” An improved bidding and purchasing process is expected to result in more, and fairer, bidding. Until then, Evanston will pay for new transmissions one at a time. Perhaps J&B Transmissions will repair some of them.