Council committee votes to sue Mayor Ballard over electric car deal
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (May 21, 2015)– The Public Works Committee of the City-County Council voted Thursday to sue the Ballard Administration over the Vision Fleet electric car deal.
Following in the wake of a FOX59 News investigation, the committee determined that from the start Mayor Ballard’s Corporation Counsel and Department of Public Works circumvented the city’s procurement ordinances and policies and violated state statutes in at least five significant ways to sign a lease agreement for seven years and $32 million with a California start-up company to assign electric and electric hybrid vehicles to the city’s municipal fleet.
Council members have complained that the Administration avoided council and Public Works Board scrutiny and approval in awarding the no-bid contract to Vision Fleet as a services agreement instead of a supplies lease deal.
Council Attorney Fred Biesecker told the committee that a deal involving vehicles, though the compensation to Vision Fleet may be based on a miles driven fee, was clearly a lease and under the council’s purview.
“It is voidable for failure to satisfy 202-204 it may well be void from the beginning under IC 36 4 8 12 and a couple other statutes and it’s still not in compliance with state and local procurement law,” Biesecker said.
Union members, the public and councilors complained that they have been denied information on the deal since its inception in the summer of 2013 and only became aware of the ramifications after the release of a heavily redacted version of the company’s contract with the city.
Jerry Stewart of AFSCME Local 3131 told councilors that for the first time since he raised objections more than a year ago, DPW Director Andy Lutz finally sat down with him today to discuss vehicle maintenance by and training for unionized city technicians.
Republican Janice McHenry was the lone committee voice in opposition to the resolution to sue, seeking a compromise that wouldn’t bog the council and the mayor’s office down in a lawsuit.
Top aides to Mayor Ballard cautioned the committee to not vote in favor of litigation, claiming Vision Fleet’s reputation as a young company still trying to sign more customers than its single Indianapolis partner was at stake.
“There is a company’s reputation at stake as they go out and get investors and try to move to other cities. They’re unfairly pulled into the situation and that could have all been avoided,” said Deputy Chief of Staff David Rosenberg.
The Ballard aides neglected to mention the well-being of taxpayers, city employees, Metro police officers or respect for the council authority in their plea to halt the committee vote.
Rosenberg encouraged the council committee to direct its attorney and chief financial officer to hire an outside lawyer to mediate the dispute between the council and the mayor as he blamed the threatened legal action on election year politics.
“Third party counsel,” said Rosenberg in a last desperate attempt to head off a political embarrassment for the outgoing mayor who committed to greening Indianapolis government. “A party that has no interest in it can find an appropriate way to move forward again before we drag a company through the mud unintentionally and continue to tarnish the reputation of Indianapolis.”
“I don’t blame the company at all for any of this,” said committee chairman Zach Adamson, a Democrat who told Rosenberg the administration could have avoided this dispute by bringing the council and Public Works Board into the conversation two years ago.
“It’s not the company that did this,” said Councilman Frank Mascari, a Beech Grove Democrat. “It’s Corporate Counsel here in this building that messed this up.”
Ballard told FOX59 News that the Office of Corporation Counsel under Andy Seiwert provided “sloppy legal work” on the deal that the mayor intended to last long after he left office.
One legal scholar told FOX59 News that the work under Seiwert’s leadership amounted to “poor lawyering” that would prove a cautionary tale for his law students.
“You have all this other documentation,” said McKinney Law School Vice Dean Antony Page as he leafed through the contradictory contracts collected by FOX59 News, “and it really looks as though…well, frankly, it looks as though they were trying to hide something.
“Who thought it was a good idea to white these out? To white out these dates?” Page asked rhetorically as he examined clearly altered signature pages that may or may not commit the city to the Vision Fleet deal. “Somebody had to physically do that? Who did that and what were they thinking, you know? Whiting out a document?”
Seiwert, who struggled to answer council questions as he stood by Rosenberg’s side at the end of the meeting, admitted to FOX59 News that “a clerical error” led to the signature sheet from a discredited and discarded Lease Agreement, without a page number, being slipped into the final Master Fleet Agreement.
That “inadvertently included” page went undetected in a packet of documents handed to the media and city county council members until discovered by FOX59 News.
It was later confirmed as accurate by the mayor’s office only to have Seiwert walk that claim back when confronted repeatedly by FOX59 News.
“It certainly looks suspicious though it were again intended to deceive somebody,” said Page. “Though the fact that they have since come clean and said it was a mistake means whatever deception hasn’t lasted particularly long but it’s a curious mistake to make.”
Councilman Mascari told the committee that the city’s failure to revoke the Lease Agreement when it rewrote the Master Fleet Agreement as a rental services deal means Indianapolis has two unenforceable and contradictory contracts with Vision Fleet.
While the Vision Fleet deal flew under the radar for council members throughout 2014, it didn’t slip past unnoticed by the men and women responsible for keeping safe city vehicles on the streets for fellow employees and the taxpayers of Indianapolis.
AFSCME Local 3131 President Jerry Stewart tried to tell Mayor Ballard’s lawyers and division heads more than a year ago that the massive electric car lease agreement was illegal and unworkable under union rules and for Metro police officers.
“What I can say is I’m extremely disappointed. I’ve learned today that there is paperwork I still haven’t seen,” he said. “What troubles me is we didn’t ask this company to come here. This company came here and asked us to share our information to see if this could even be a viable business.”
Mayor Ballard told FOX59 News that after meetings earlier this week he was confident that there would be enough city employees in the municipal who could be assigned Vision Fleet vehicles even though the company said it would halt the delivery of Chevy Volts to IMPD officers.