By John Tuohy
The Indianapolis City-County Council voted overwhelmingly Monday to sue the city to stop it from implementing a $32 million plan to rent electric cars.
By a 23-6 vote, the council authorized the council attorney to file a suit to nullify the no-bid contract with California-based Vision Fleet on the grounds that it was signed illegally.
"There were breaches all along the way," said Councilman William Oliver, explaining his vote.
The office of Mayor Greg Ballard, which has championed a conversion to an electric fleet of city vehicles to save money and reduce emissions, reacted strongly to the action, calling it "irresponsible and misguided."
"When one branch of government sues another, taxpayers are harmed," said spokeswoman Jen Pittman. "We believe we have a legal contract and intend to continue fleet operations without interruption."
During debates, both Democratic and Republican council members accused the administration of Mayor Greg Ballard of negotiating the contract in secret. Several members also said the electric cars were not suitable for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, where most of them would be headed.
"We are forcing this program down the throats of the very people who are trying to protect us," said Councilman Aaron Freeman. "These cars don't work."
Democrat Vop Osili said after the meeting that the lawsuit was intended to halt any action on a contract that is "deeply flawed in its legality" and to determine accountability for how the contract was reached. But he also said he favors trying to salvage some type of electric vehicle program.
The lawsuit would seek "declaratory judgment that the contract was void from its inception and/or is otherwise illegal and unenforceable," according to Proposal 168 on Monday night's council agenda.
Council attorney Fred Biesecker said the city illegally entered a no-bid agreement with Vision Fleet. The contract should have been bid because it was a purchasing agreement -- not a services contract -- and should have been handled by the Office of Finance and Management and approved by the Board of Public Works.
"The administration doesn't get to ignore state and local procurement law," Biesecker said in an email to The Indianapolis Star. "This contract should have been competed."
Democrat John Barth said during debates that Ballard "was hiding details and secretly negotiating" with Vision Fleet.
Pittman said the deal did not need to be bid "because at its heart, this is a service agreement."
"We are renting these cars, we are not purchasing them," Pittman said. "In addition, we receive a management service from them."
Pittman said the city has an option but not an obligation to purchase the vehicles after seven years.
The city agreed to pay Vision Fleet about $32 million to rent 425 plug-in sedans; the company would maintain them and manage the city's vehicle usage. That rounds out to about $75,000 per car but includes maintenance, gas and other operating costs. Most of the cars would be for IMPD and the Indianapolis Fire Department.
Ballard said the deal would save $8.7 million. The city estimates it now spends $9,010 per year per gas-operated car. An electric car would cost $7,380 a year.
Several council members said that besides their objection to the way the contract was negotiated, they didn't think electric cars and hybrids were appropriate for the police department.
The city has said the cars for IMPD would be used by employees who don't need pursuit vehicles and the traditional cars they use now could be used by patrol officers.
But Fraternal Order of Police Vice President Rick Snyder said the Chevrolet Volts IMPD has been assigned don't even have enough cargo space for a typical officer's equipment. He said 98 officers have Volts and 150 are expected to get them.
Snyder said hybrid Ford Fusions are bigger and he would continue talks with the city and Vision Fleet about replacing the Volts with Fusions. A spokeswoman for Vision Fleet suggested the council's action would cause the company to rethink whether it wants to stay in the deal.
"With this vote, we have to reassess the landscape and prepare for the possibility that the City and Council may be unwilling to work out their political differences," Jennifer Wagner said in a written statement.
"We're disappointed that the Council voted to pursue litigation when all we've been trying to do since these issues came to light is find common ground ... so this successful program can continue to save taxpayer money, modernize our aging fleet and reduce our dependence on oil."
Last week, Marion County Auditor Julie Voorhies said the Ballard administration may have illegally moved hundreds of thousands of dollars from the city's storm water fund to pay for the cars.
Voorhies, a Democrat, said an audit showed the mayor's office may have moved about $293,000 slated for the storm drain fund, without council approval, to pay for the "Freedom Fleet."
Pittman said Vision Fleet was included in the 2014 Department of Public Works budget, which was approved by the council. But the department had to move money around to pay for 2014 winter storm damage, and that forced it to borrow from the storm water fund for the cars.
Pittman said Public Works should have gotten council approval before transferring the funds and described it as an oversight by the department.
Republican Councilman Jeff Miller offered a proposal to delay a vote on the lawsuit by 30 days, but it was defeated. He said he agrees the contract should be held until differences are sorted out but disagrees that suing the city is the way to go.
"I don't think we should be talking about lawsuits yet to get this contract voided," he said. "That could end up costing a lot of time and money."
(c)2015 The Indianapolis Star