New company gets benches
The Baton Rouge Metro Council awarded a contract to provide online driving school classes to a California-based company Wednesday night, over several objections that local companies should be given higher priority for public contracts.
During the three-hour council meeting, the council also approved a new bus bench advertising contract, ending a more than 30-year monopoly on bench advertising in the parish. And the council, without discussion, approved a tax increment finance deal for the $600 million River Park development in downtown Baton Rouge.
The Metro Council was asked in July to approve a contract with Cyber Active to provide online driving classes to traffic offenders. But Donald Luther Jr., who owns Angelwood Driving School complained that he deserved the contract because he is local, already provides similar services to City Court and initially brought the idea to offer the services to the city-parish.
But after a request for proposals was issued by the parish attorney’s office, a committee of city-parish staff members recommended Cyber Active as the most qualified company that would offer the classes at the lowest cost to drivers.
The council in July was split, and could not garner a majority to award the contract to either Cyber Active or Angelwood. The council remained divided Wednesday, but after extensive debate voted to award the contract to Cyber Active.
Councilman Trae Welch urged the council to award the contract to Luther, who he admitted is a friend of his. But Welch said his friendship with Luther had nothing to do with the contract.
“What happened tonight is that every single local driving school that has a presence here in East Baton Rouge Parish just went out of business,” Welch said. “All of the tickets that would have gone to the local driving school just got funneled to the California company.”
Luther currently provides court-ordered driving classes for City Court, but the new contract will open up online driving classes to pre-trial intervention, helping some offenders keep the citations off their records. “There are 900 traffic tickets any given week that go through the City Court and a large portion of them are now eligble for pretrial programs,” he said. “That’s the bread and butter for most of these court-required driving schools.”
Luther’s attorney’s said the RFP was not clear about the information it requested from the applicants.
But assistant parish attorney Ashley Beck said applicants with questions or concerns should have asked them during the selection process.
“We stand by the committee recommendation,” Beck said. “We think it was handled fairly and properly and there was one proposal that rose above the rest.”
Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards suggested that some of her colleagues were attempting to give the contract to Angelwood, in spite of a process she considered fair.
“I favor local business but I also favor fairness,” she said. “If the committee had awarded this to Angelwood, then this would be an nonissue.”
Luther declined comment after the vote.
Ultimately, the council voted 8-3 to award the contract to Cyber Active, with Welch, C. Denise Marcelle and John Delgado voting against the contract. Ryan Heck abstained, and Scott Wilson, Edwards, Donna Collins-Lewis, Chandler Loupe, Buddy Amoroso, Joel Boé, Chauna Banks-Daniel and Tara Wicker voted in favor of the contract.
The council also awarded Giraffe Advertising an eight-year franchise agreement to place bus benches in the public right of way. The city-parish will collect 10 percent of the advertisements sold on the benches.
For about 35 years, Richard Tugwell, owner of National Bench Advertising, has been responsible for the benches with advertisements found at different spots around the parish.
Brooke Barnett, owner of Giraffe Advertising, said he would maintain the benches so they did not become eyesores and, unlike his competitor would only place them on corresponding bus routes.
Some Metro Council members were hesitant to allow another company to place bus benches, for fear of creating what some called “visual litter,” but other council members expressed concerns that Tugwell has a monopoly on the benches.
In 2010, the Metro Council similarly denied a franchise agreement to a mother-daughter advertising team from New Orleans on the grounds that there were already too many benches in the parish.
The council voted 8-4 in favor of the franchise agreement. Welch, Banks-Daniel, Edwards and Donna Collins-Lewis voted against the agreement.
In other business the council voted, 7-2, in favor of approving a TIF for the River Park development, rebating the 2 percent local sales tax to the future development.
River Park is a proposed $600 million, 50-acre project that will include a boardwalk, hotels, retail, green space, parking garage, concert facility and residential space on the Mississippi River front downtown.
Despite some debate from Metro Council members in recent weeks over approving another TIF, which diverts money from the general fund, the council quickly approved the item without discussion.
Only Heck and Amoroso voted against the TIF. Wicker, Banks-Daniel and Welch were not present for the vote.