|Smelly Tow Contract
Tradition Continues Despite Irregularities
June 25, 2001
SMELLY TOW CONTRACT TRADITION CONTINUES DESPITE IRREGULARITIES
At the meeting of June 19, 2001, the Richmond City Council took the final of three interrelated actions to implement new towing contracts. These contracts are awarded to companies that tow and store vehicles pursuant to actions by the Richmond Police Department. The vehicles may be damaged, abandoned, evidence in an investigation, constitute a nuisance or be in violation of some ordinance or provision of the Vehicle Code. Typically, fees are paid by vehicle owners, not by the City.
The three actions by the City Council included:
· Approval of a new form of contract
· Approval of ordinances setting fees for towing and storage
· Approval of firms to be awarded contracts.
These lucrative tow contracts are particularly sought after because they are a significant source of business for the participating companies. The way the system works is by “rotation.” Each time there is a need for a police-initiated tow, the next company in the rotation is contacted. If it takes the assignment, then it tows and stores the vehicle. If it refuses the assignment, then it rolls over to the bottom of the rotation list. The tow companies are eventually paid by owners when the vehicles are reclaimed, and unclaimed vehicles are sold at auction.
This all seems pretty straight forward, except that the award and administration of tow contracts has, in the opinion of many persons, been a source of abuse and even corruption over the years. There is evidence that tow contracts, in the past, have been awarded on the basis of political support to certain persons. There have also been allegations that rotations have been manipulated to give some companies the most lucrative assignments.
I do know that administration of the contracts by the police department has been, at best, extremely sloppy, and that violation of the contract provisions have been routinely overlooked. Within the last five years, I have personally uncovered a number of such abuses, including failure to have proper licenses, failure to own property where evidence tows are stored and failure to conform to zoning and nuisance laws. I also have reason to believe that certain tow companies have been selectively harassed by City staff while others have been allowed to sustain the same alleged violations with impunity.
As a part of hearings on the current proposed contracts, I expressed concern about the award of separate contracts to two San Pablo companies, Oliver’s and A & D, because they appeared to be essentially the same company. By awarding separate contracts, each would get a slot in the rotation, thus doubling their share of assigned business.
I had been old by reliable sources for some time that these two companies were the same. On June 14, at the Public Safety and Public Services Committee meeting, I asked Assistant City Attorney Everett Jenkins to research the two entities to determine whether they had intertwining financial interests. His answer was:
“...I have reviewed the submitted documentation concerning Oliver’s Towing and A & D Towing companies with regards to the nature of each company, their employees, their tow vehicles and their management. Based on that review, I advise that each company is a separate legal entity, owned and operated by different persons, with no overlap in employees or management.”
When I pressed for specifics, Mr. Jenkins declined, citing privacy and proprietary information, and the Public Safety and Public Services Committee members declined to support any further inquiry. Subsequently, I wrote Mr. Jenkins, asking him to provide the following information from public records:
“This is the information I want regarding the two companies. I request that you obtain the information independently from public records rather than relying on the companies for representations.
1. Who owns the real estate leased to Oliver’s and A & D?
2. Who owns each of the two companies?
3. Who manages each of the two companies?
4. What are the names of the employees of each company?
5. Does either owner have anything financial to gain from the operations of the other?
If any of the parties are corporations or partnerships, provide the names of all the owners and officers.”
On June 18, I received a letter from Mr. Jenkins stating that Randy Wilcox is the owner and manager of Oliver’s Tow and that Robert Wilcox is the owner and manager of A & D Tow. Robert and Randy Wilcox are father and son, and the two businesses occupy the same building on the same lot owned by the same person. Although Mr. Jenkins could not confirm it, I have additional information that the two companies use the same tow trucks. Despite this obvious relationship, City staff continues to indicate that the two companies are so substantially different that they qualify for separate contracts and separate slots on the rotation.
Of the six tow companies recommended for contracts, only two are located in Richmond. At least two other Richmond tow companies, both owned by African Americans were barred from contracts on technical grounds that they did not respond in a timely manner to the solicitation. However, one company owner told me that he never received an invitation, and the other told me that the City sent his invitation to the wrong address. When I asked City staff if Richmond tow companies would have an opportunity to participate in the future, if they were otherwise qualified, I was told that there were now enough tow contracts and that the opportunity was closed.
Although City staff publicly supported award of contracts to Oliver’s and A & D, I was told by one person that a City staff member privately acknowledged that the arrangement “stinks.”
The award of contracts was opposed by only two council members, Butt and Griffin.