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Ore. commish changes vote on ambulance contract amid lawsuit

County commissioner Jim Bernard said the risk of a lawsuit and the time and expense of restarting a process for new bids isn't in the best interest of county residents

The Oregonian

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. — Jim Bernard talked about Clackamas County's ambulance contract with his wife last week, then spent the weekend without email, alone at the beach, thinking. He came back Tuesday and shocked his fellow commissioners by reversing his position on the county's largest contract.

Bernard was the swing vote last month when the commissioners rejected American Medical Response's proposal to provide ambulance services to the county, triggering the threat of a $20 million lawsuit. On Tuesday, he privately advised colleagues of his change of heart minutes before making a public statement.

"I want to apologize for any hardship I may have caused anyone as this issue has dragged on, particularly our first responders who are my heroes," Bernard said. "Unfortunately, as a result I failed to see that we had achieved a contract that is not only responsive, but is at a reduced price, is innovative, and has greater partnerships. These are all things that we can be proud of, and now it's time to move forward."

On Jan. 21, Bernard voted with Commissioners John Ludlow and Tootie Smith to reject the contract after a nearly two-year bidding process because AMR was the only company to meet the county's deadline to turn in a proposal. Bernard said at the time that he would like to see a process that resulted in multiple bids.

In response, AMR filed a tort claim last week that demanded that county officials either follow through on their previously declared intention to approve the proposed contract or extend AMR's existing contract for four years. The company argued that reopening the bidding process would put AMR at a disadvantage because the county has published American Medical Response's proposal on its website.

Infuriated with Bernard for switching sides, Smith and Ludlow accused him of buckling to pressure from AMR's employee union members, who have criticized the board at public meetings.

"You set a great precedent here," Ludlow said. "Do that (apply public pressure) and you will win the day. Someone will cave."

However, Bernard is not the first commissioner to reverse course after public criticism. Last year Ludlow, Paul Savas and other commissioners changed their minds on proposed noise and exclusion ordinances after residents voiced strong opposition.

Bernard denied that he changed his mind because of the Teamsters union.

He credited reflection on two questions from his wife: " 'Have I achieved my goal in bringing about a stronger and reasonably priced contract for emergency services for the residents of Clackamas County?' and 'Would prolonging the pursuit of the perfect contact and more bidders actually achieve a better outcome or would the process to get there be so onerous on staff, AMR employees and the citizens that it was in reality a disservice?' "

Bernard said, upon reflection, he appreciated the improvements in the proposed AMR contract, including a $233 reduction per ride to patients.

And, perhaps more importantly, the risk of a lawsuit and the time and expense of restarting a process for new bids isn't in the best interest of county residents, he said.

"It is not our staff or AMR's fault we only ended up with one bidder," Bernard said. "Once the bid was open and published, it became impossible to have the competitive process I advocated for."

Commissioners Martha Schrader and Paul Savas advocated to approve the contract all along. Schrader praised Bernard's announcement Tuesday.

"It shows a level of courage to kind of really come forward and make this change," Schrader said. "We will always have people who are disappointed in us. They will be mean to us. They will do it publicly."

Bernard still wants to tweak the contract, removing an "evergreen" clause, which would mean the contract is in place indefinitely until the commissioners decide to break it. He opted for a four-year contract, with the option to renew it for another four years. He said he is open to a longer-term contract, though.

Smith, who is running against Democratic Kurt Schrader for a U.S. House seat, sent out a press release Monday from her campaign, saying that she wants to issue a new request for proposals. She stood by that Tuesday, saying she wants a "side-by-side comparison" of proposals.

Ludlow acknowledged that he and Smith are now out-voted and asked for the time to suggest his own tweaks to make the contract more palatable.

"I would appreciate AMR working as diligently and quickly as possible towards coming to terms," Ludlow said.

AMR General Manager Randy Lauer said he plans to work with the county.

"We are pleased with the Board's decision today, and look forward to continue serving the citizens of Clackamas County," Lauer said.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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