Black businessman sues City of Omaha over bidding practices in cleaning contract | Crime News

A Black businessman whose cleaning company is based in North Omaha has sued the City of Omaha, alleging wrongful bidding practices that discriminated against his low, top-rated bids in favor of a White-owned company. 

Rodney Johnson, 49, filed the federal civil rights lawsuit Monday against the city and current and former employees of Parks and Recreation Department, seeking damages of $5 million. 

After a tumultuous 16-month bidding process for custodial services of parks facilities that was rebid twice, Johnson’s company, BJ’s Fleet Wash, was hired. But Johnson alleges in a lawsuit that the city sought to fire his firm as early as 45 days into the job for what he considered bad-faith work complaints. 

Johnson said he thinks one reason the city wanted to avoid doing business with him and his company is that he, as a private citizen, had filed several public records requests, a demand letter and subsequent lawsuits in Douglas County challenging the city’s trash contract, which was approved in 2019. (Johnson and his company were not involved in the trash contract or bidding process — the now-pending lawsuit was filed by him as a third party and resident of Omaha.)

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Johnson’s company is registered as a Tier I Emerging Small Business under a city program that aims to stimulate economic growth for small businesses located in high-poverty areas. According to city ordinance, these companies are given priority under certain conditions in the bidding process over “Tier II” businesses located in central and west Omaha.

In his records requests, Johnson found that in the past decade, the city awarded janitorial contracts valued at more than $1.1 million to non-Tier I contractors while giving Tier I contractors about $15,000, he said.

Johnson said the city needs to “follow the rules they created. They need to help foster the businesses. The goal of the program is to fight poverty. We’re defeating ourselves.

“This lawsuit is not just about my company or the cleaning contract,” he said. “All contractors bidding on city contracts, Black or White, from North Omaha or west Omaha, should be treated fairly and afforded equal protection of the law.”

City Attorney Matthew Kuhse declined to comment on the lawsuit. He said that is protocol for any lawsuit filed against the city.

“The Law Department will defend this lawsuit and act in the best interests of the city,” Kuhse said in a statement.

The city first issued a request for proposal in July 2019 seeking near-daily custodial services for 17 parks and recreational facilities plus outdoor restrooms for three years. The suit alleges the bid from BJ’s Fleet Wash of roughly $298,000 per year was the lowest bid that conformed to the city’s requirements, and came from the only certified Tier I company.

The suit also alleges the city’s “preferred contractor” submitted a nonconforming proposal that was about $75,000 less than BJ’s Fleet Wash while the incumbent contractor for the previous seven years submitted a conforming bid totaling nearly $497,000 annually. 

Johnson said parks officials “expressly established preference for a Certified Tier II ESB contractor” and only forwarded the two other bids to the committee to be evaluated. But Johnson pushed for his bid to be evaluated by the committee, which then gave his bid the highest evaluation score of 85.5 points at a price 4.6% lower than the incumbent contractor’s previous 12-month cost, according to the lawsuit. 

Despite this, Johnson said then-Parks Director Brook Bench approved a contract with the nonconforming bid from what Johnson contends was the city’s preferred company. After opponents spoke out against the process in a January 2020 public meeting, the Omaha City Council rejected the contract. 

Bench and officials sought to rebid for the proposal later that month “due to conflicting language” of required documents, which Johnson contends was a false premise.

Six potential vendors submitted bids the second time, but the company that the suit contends was the city’s preferred bidder did not submit a sufficient bid bond security deposit and was disqualified. Parks officials wanted to reject all the bids and rebid the project again because of “a confusion over the change in bid bond requirements,” according to emails Johnson acquired via a public records request. 

A lawyer in the city attorney’s office responded to an email chain and wrote, “I don’t think there is a reasonable basis to rebid … this seems to be an effort to accommodate the one bidder that screwed up his bid bond and I don’t think that is fair. While I feel bad for him, that is his fault for not reading the requirements.”

Bench responded: “I think we should follow (the lawyer’s) recommendation. I’m sure if we rebid it again many red flags would go up.” Bench resigned in June 2020 after 24 years with the city. 

In August 2020, officials rebid for the contract. Of the three companies that submitted bids, BJ’s Fleet Wash was the lowest. Officials approved the contract with Johnson’s company, the City Council approved it and Mayor Jean Stothert signed the agreement in November 2020.

Though the contract was set to go into effect Jan 1, 2021, officials asked Johnson if he could start a month earlier. Johnson agreed. 

Johnson said he created surveys and checklists for each site supervisor in order to get direct feedback on the cleanings, but said he was unable to speak to city employees and often heard of complaints days later. Johnson said the working conditions were difficult for his employees in the midst of the pandemic, and he contends that his workers were contractually required to clean a facility daily that wasn’t even used every day.  

“It just seemed like they did not want to work with me,” he said. “To say that we didn’t do a good job, that’s what they set out to do — to find every flaw possible.”

Johnson said that while he can agree that his company isn’t perfect, he has had other service contracts with the city in previous years that have been renewed. The company, he said, also has had other cleaning contracts with local entities that rated its work highly.

Johnson alleges that parks officials made it difficult for him to communicate with facility supervisors and asked the supervisors to search for and report negative conditions. 

As early as 45 days into Johnson’s contract, a recreation supervisor wrote in an email that “we are aware of the challenges with this company and working on severing ties.”

The lawsuit states that the city terminated the contract with BJ’s Fleet Wash on May 4, 2021, and awarded it to the city’s preferred company.

Johnson’s attorney, Adam Sipple, wrote in a statement that much will be uncovered in the lawsuit.

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