Gopher hole issues at Robb Field
Eleanor and Claude Thedford, owners of Epic Pest Control and Landscape Services, believe employees in San Diego’s Purchasing and Contracting Department are trying to shut down their business.
The reason for the vendetta, says Eleanor Thedford, is threefold: part retaliation over a well-publicized and costly gopher problem at an Ocean Beach park, lack of oversight in the purchasing and contracting department, and discrimination against minority-owned businesses.
Since 2013, city procurement officers have denied Epic’s bids on several occasions, going so far as awarding contracts to nonlicensed companies. The San Diego County Department of Agriculture has fined some of the companies for working without necessary licenses.
And as Eleanor and Claude Thedford fought, unsuccessfully, to win new contracts, city employees refused to renew their existing contracts. Doing so has put Epic on the brink of insolvency.
Claude Thedford started Epic in 1998, after working at Terminix for over 27 years. At first he focused on residential properties. But by his tenth year in business the company expanded its scope, serving commercial clients as well as providing pest control for government entities such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Veterans Affairs administration building, as well as contracts with the City of San Diego to control pests at 70 parks and public libraries throughout the city.
“We built a reputation for doing it right the first time,” said Claude Thedford in a September interview. “I think we built a very solid relationship with our clients, including the city.”
Thedford worked with the city to make sure that he had all necessary licenses for pest control and landscape maintenance.
Their work paid off and in 2010 Epic Pest control entered into another contract with the city to provide gopher control at Robb Field in Ocean Beach.
Costly gopher problem at this Ocean Beach park
Best way to kill gophers
2525 Bacon Street, San Diego
Since 2008, gophers have burrowed thousands of tunnels underground at Robb Field. Sports leagues and parkgoers have lodged complaints. City employees responded by hiring an outside company to kill the gophers. Searching for a long-term solution, the city awarded Epic Pest Control the contract.
Just as Thedford began to treat the problem, the city received complaints about using poison at a public park. The Animal Protection and Rescue League, a nonprofit animal-rights group, threatened legal action if the city and any of their contractors used poison to kill gophers.
Thedford continued to visit the park. Meanwhile, the city looked for other ways to eradicate the gophers. They hired a different company to kill the gophers by blasting the tunnels with a lethal combination of methane and oxygen. The blasts further weakened the topsoil.
In August 2013, during a football game, a man named Andre Walker, fell into one of the holes, injuring his leg. He sued the city and Epic Pest Control. Epic Pest Control’s insurance company, in turn, sued the city for “interfering” with the treatment of the field.
Just over a year later, the city agreed to settle the case for $450,000 in damages. At the time of the settlement, as reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune, a city employee blamed Epic Pest Control for submitting a bid too low to cover the costs to adequately address the gopher infestation.
Thedford says the city used him and his company as a scapegoat.
During the following year, Thedford says the city informed him that they were not renewing several contracts. At the same time, city employees were finding reasons to reject his company’s bids. One such incident occurred in May 2013 when the city rejected Epic Pest Control’s bid to provide landscape maintenance for the Tierrasanta Maintenance Assessment District. The city entered into a contract with Treebeard Landscape. When researching the winning bidder, Thedford discovered they did not possess necessary licenses to perform the work.
Thedford’s attorney contacted the city, arguing that Epic Pest Control should have been awarded the contract since they were the lowest, fully licensed bidder. The city wasn’t swayed. In an August 15, 2013, letter, a deputy city attorney decided the contract was “awarded in compliance” with city code.
That same month, San Diego County’s Department of Agriculture looked into the contract and discovered that Treebeard did not have the proper license. The department fined the company $400.
Department of complaints
Complaints over a lack of oversight by the city’s purchasing and contracting department are not unusual. In January 2015, San Diego’s city auditor found purchasing and contracting employees had little to do with the contract after the bid is awarded.
“…Purchasing & Contracting will lead and enter into cooperative agreements on behalf of the City to maximize best pricing. After the contract is executed, administration and monitoring responsibility has been decentralized to the department that requests and initiated the contract.... [I]n most cases we found that many departments we spoke with were unaware that they were responsible for monitoring the entire Citywide contract.
The cost of not doing business
Not winning contracts and losing old contracts has hit the Thedford’s business hard.
Since 2013, Eleanor Thedford estimates declining business with the city has cost her company approximately $7 million.
She says she’s devoted hours to submitting protest letters to San Diego’s Purchasing and Contracting Department. In September 2015, she received an email from the city’s procurement specialist, Christopher Moore, informing them that the bid they had submitted “did not provide three landscaping references, but instead provided two landscaping references and one pest control reference. Based on Epic’s failure to provide the required information, the city is deeming Epic’s bid non-responsive.”
Eleanor Thedford claims that the company that won the bid, Westturf Landscape Management, did not possess the necessary licenses to perform all of the work at the time of submitting their bid.
She says she is aware of at least eight occasions of the city passing her company up in favor of a non-licensed competitor. “I believe that both public works and purchasing & contracting staff have instituted a mindset of ‘trust and not verify’ for quite some time now,” Thedford wrote in an email.
Eleanor Thedord has since looked into the city’s record of working with local businesses that are owned by minorities. According to data compiled as part of the Small Local Business Enterprise Program, of which Epic Pest Control is a member, less than 1 percent of city contracts are awarded to African-American companies. In fact, just $1.2 million out of a total $124.7 million program is paid to African-American-owned companies.
“In 2013, when we submitted our first protest of the award to a contractor that was not the lowest responsible bidder, the purchasing and contracting department began refusing to do business with our black business,” Thedford says.
San Diego County Department of Agriculture employee José Arriaga says there are other explanations for non-licensed companies to be awarded city contracts.
“I’m aware of some of these instances,” said Arriaga of complaints regarding non-licensed companies winning lucrative city contracts. “Some of the companies received fines. Others were given cease-and-desist orders, requiring them to obtain the correct licenses before performing any work. We don’t have direct jurisdiction over the city. We only provide guidance....
“Oftentimes the contractor might hire another company, a properly licensed one, to do certain tasks, and sometimes that is difficult to find in the contract.”
Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office did not respond to questions about a lack of oversight in the department.