Torrance cuts ties with Gerber Ambulance, awards contract to McCormick
Minutes after the vote came in Tuesday evening, Gerber Ambulance Services founder and vice-president Rebecca Gerber stood in shock. After nearly two hours of discussion, the Torrance City Council voted to sever 20-year-old ties with Gerber, choosing to award its next emergency transportation contract to McCormick Ambulances.
Emotions ran high among the more than one dozen Torrance residents speaking during public comment at the meeting and among council members struggling to make a decision. Ultimately, the vote was split, four to three, in support of the recommendation of McCormick by city staff. Mayor Pat Furey, and Councilmembers Tim Goodrich, Geoff Rizzo and Kurt Weideman voted in favor; Councilmembers Heidi Ann Ashcraft, Mike Griffiths and Gene Barnett dissented.
McCormick was chosen from a pool of three potential contractors by a committee of city employees that included the Torrance Fire Department. The contract, which begins December 2, was an item of heated discussion within the community, fueled in part by an item published in Tuesday’s edition of the Daily Breeze, which linked donations made by both the ambulance company and the Torrance Firefighters Association to a political action committee that supported Furey’s re-election.
Furey confronted accusations of impropriety head-on, dismissing calls to recuse himself from voting, noting that the PAC in question had no contact with him or his campaign and announcing that, after earlier consulting with his legal team, he had decided that he would vote with a clear conscience.
“It would not change my vote one iota one way or another,” Furey said of the support offered by the PAC supporting his campaign.
Discussion began with a presentation by the city’s selection committee, outlining the selection process and detailing the criteria set for the three potential contractors that were considered: McCormick, Americare Ambulance Service and Care Ambulance Service. Gerber, despite holding the current contract with the city, was left out of the process for lacking independently audited finance records by the proposal submission deadline, as company vice-president Rebecca Gerber explained in her public comment.
“We’re a privately-held company,” Gerber said. “For us to have our financials audited would take us three months; the submission process was three weeks…what more can we offer you?”
She subsequently asked for a motion to table the decision, touting Gerber’s history, naming the ties her company held to Torrance: family, friends, employees and suppliers, all located within the city.
“Torrance is our world,” Gerber said. “We put you high on a pedestal.”
But after comments from the public tapered off, Councilmembers Goodrich and Weideman came to the crux of the matter: that Gerber had defaulted on its contract with the city twice within the past two years, first in June 2013 and again in February 2014. Violations of the contract included a failure to have the required number of ambulances; failure to meet required response times; ambulances that failed vehicle maintenance inspections; and a failure to integrate with Torrance’s computer aided dispatch system.
Minutes later, a motion was made to approve the selection committee’s recommendation, then seconded. The voting began, and after a seemingly interminable wait, the results came through. McCormick’s representatives began to applaud.
“It really was one of my most difficult decisions in my 15 months on the council,” Weideman said after the meeting.
The councilman’s internal conflict was visible from the audience as he cast his vote; going into the night’s meeting, he had a feeling he would be the deciding vote. But his decision was seemingly sealed by the consideration of Gerber’s contract defaults.
“If the customer says ‘You have to integrate with our systems as part of the contract,’ you have to do it,” he said. “The lack of integration, plus the two defaults, plus the recommendation of McCormick by the panel of staff who are experts in the field led to my decision.”
After the vote, the council took a brief recess before continuing onto the rest of the evening’s agenda. As the council chambers emptied, Rebecca Gerber stood among employees and family in a daze. Asked what was next for her and her company, Gerber said the company would find a way to move forward.
“We’re going to continue on as best we can, one foot in front of the other. We’ve served this community for 20 years, and we’re proud of it,” she said before following the crowd into the night.