OAKLAND — A plan to bring a new ambulance service to Alameda County is causing a debate that's getting noisier than blaring sirens.
County supervisors are set to vote this month on a committee's recommendation that they enter contract negotiations with Texas-based Paramedics Plus. The recommendation follows a recent open bidding process.
If awarded a contract, Paramedics Plus would replace American Medical Response, which has been operating in Alameda County for nearly 40 years under its current name or previous incarnations.
The selection process, however, has prompted questions about which government records should be made public and which should remain confidential.
Last month, the county's health care services agency released the selection committee's final scoring, indicating that Paramedics Plus had submitted a lower bid than American Medical on a contract.
But American Medical officials protested, contending that Paramedics Plus had underbid. American filed a Public Records Act request to review documents associated with the bidding, including Paramedics Plus's proposal and the committee's scoring sheets.
County officials denied the request, citing a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling that gave agencies the right to withhold bidding information if the disclosure could hinder contract negotiations with the winning bidder.
The court stated that a government agency's ability to negotiate could be "hampered because the proposer's doubt as to what the competition is offering would be eliminated" — thus creating the potential for a higher cost to taxpayers.
County Counsel Richard Winnie said the bidding information will eventually be made public, but not until negotiations are complete and the contract is sent to the supervisors for final approval — as per the Supreme Court ruling.
However, the dispute has some critics — including some county officials — concerned that the public is being kept in the dark about negotiations for receiving a vital health service.
Alameda County Supervisor Gail Steele said she finds the secrecy aspect troubling, but added that she believes county staff knew of the intense competition for such a contract and "bent over backwards" to make sure all proper channels were followed.
"I have to believe they did their own due diligence," Steele said. "I do have faith in the process."
Other counties, however, have followed a different process. In 2004-05, Contra Costa County posted all bids for its ambulance service on a public Web site before it even began negotiating its contract.
"This isn't a contract for real estate or something along those lines," Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia said. "The public receives these services. The public would want to know what went on."
Steele and the four other Alameda County supervisors are expected to vote April 27 on whether to authorize the start of negotiations with Paramedics Plus. But the supervisors will not be able to see the bids and score sheets until they are set to approve the actual contract — meaning the documents won't become public record until just days before the final action.
"In theory, you have created a process where you may be able to get the best price — although that could be argued," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. "However, also you've created a not very viable decision-making process."
Scheer admits, though, that it's impossible to expect decision-makers to read every single word of every contract that passes through — a view with which Steele concurs.
"It's impossible to look at everything," Steele said. "That's why we have staff and great department heads here."
Nevertheless, Steele said she has received "mountains of mail" concerning the contract. American Medical, meanwhile, is appealing the county's rejection of its protest of the Paramedics Plus recommendation.
"We have protests coming from every different side," Steele said.
American Medical employees already have appeared at supervisors meetings, asking the county to reconsider the recommendation, and expressing fear that they could lose their jobs if their employer loses its county contract.
The issue caused the county to issue a "fact sheet" saying the county expects any new ambulance service provider to rehire American Medical paramedics. The union representing those employees, the National Emergency Medical Services Association, has come out in favor of Paramedics Plus through a vote of top union personnel statewide.
American Medical employs about 450 people in Alameda County. But the company would need only about 130 of them if it loses the contract, company spokesman Jason Sorrick said.
"We've lost contracts in other counties and left gracefully," Sorrick said. "Here, we just want to see why we weren't chosen, but we can't even do that. We have to file a protest, and we're not even sure what we're protesting."
Sorrick said it's in the best interests of not just American Medical, but the public to have full access to the bids. If a contractor were to underbid, it might later come back to the county asking for changes such as higher transport fees — the amount of money health care providers pay the ambulance service every time they take a patient. Such changes would cost patients more money, he said.
Nevertheless, county officials said, keeping the bids secret usually protects both the county and its residents.
"I think it's OK as long as the county is not setting up a new rule," Steele said.
Winnie said that after his discussion with the county's General Services Agency he believes the county has been consistent and does have a policy not to make bid public.
"My conclusion is that we do have a consistent practice of not making public the bids until negotiations of a contract are complete," he said. "There is also a strong business rationale supporting this policy."
Robin Johansen, a partner at the law firm Remcho, Johansen & Purcell in San Leandro representing Paramedics Plus, had no comment on the bidding process.