March trial on city suit

Published 10:31 pm Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A trial is scheduled for March in a lawsuit filed against the city over the purchase of a mobile command bus for the police department.

The lawsuit, filed by a company that submitted a losing bid, alleges that Suffolk awarded the contract to a bidder that did not meet the specifications in the Invitation for Bids.

Last week, a judge granted an injunction that prevents the city from proceeding with the purchase until the trial is concluded.

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The Suffolk Police Department received a Port Security Grant of $656,503 earlier this year. Almost all of the money — $634,688 — was to be used to purchase the mobile command vehicle.

According to a presentation by Police Chief Thomas Bennett this spring, such a vehicle would help the department improve its response to natural disasters, hostage situations and other incidents. It would enable the police to set up a command center at any location.

The vehicle would have the capability to operate police and fire dispatching for the entire city and include a conference room from which hostage negotiations could be conducted, a telescopic surveillance camera that could read the license plate on a car from 200 yards away, a satellite television and telephone, a diesel generator that could fully power the bus for 48 hours, and more.

The company that filed the lawsuit, Matthews Specialty Vehicles Inc., submitted a bid of $655,292 for the vehicle. Farber Specialty Vehicles submitted a lower bid of $589,000. Another bid for $540,838 was considered non-responsive by the city, so Farber was awarded the contract.

However, according to the lawsuit, Farber’s bid included specifications that varied from requirements listed in the bid invitation, including for items such as the width and weight of the bus, dimensions of the radiator, construction and flooring materials, the style of cabinets and ceilings, and more.

The lawsuit claims city officials approached Matthews in 2009 about building a bus exactly like the one the company built for Newport News. Police Chief Thomas Bennett, who has been subpoenaed as a witness in the case, was a deputy chief for the Newport News Police Department before coming to work for Suffolk in June 2009.

The city used the exact specifications of the Newport News bus to construct its invitation for bids, the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit further claims that Farber’s bid misled the city by saying that it met all the specifications on a checklist, but then having the discrepancies in drawings and other materials that were also submitted.

“Matthews has suffered irreparable injury … due to the city impinging on Matthews’ right to fair consideration in the procurement process,” the lawsuit says.

The trial is set for March 15. City spokeswoman Debbie George said the city does not comment on pending legal matters.