Christine Metz / The Bulletin

Backed by information uncovered by the Bend Police Department, some city councilors say they are ready to sue the company that sold the city six faulty buses.

Bend City Councilor John Hummel said he and other councilors ”absolutely” want to sue the company that sold the city the large blue transit buses. The buses have racked up more than $120,000 in maintenance and repair costs since they arrived in Bend.

The city bought the 1996 ElDorado Transmark buses from Transit Sales International, a bus brokerage firm based in Riverside, Calif. Transit Sales International did not respond to a request by The Bulletin to comment.

In August, Bend purchased the six new buses for $35,200 each. The buses had previously been used in Salt Lake City. An official with the Utah Transit Authority said continual maintenance problems had forced the authority to retire the buses early.

In 2005, the authority in Salt Lake City sold the buses to Transit Sales International for $1,800 or less each.

The 32-foot-long buses were intended to be the heart of the city's new fixed-route bus system, which started Sept. 27.

On Thursday, two of the six buses were running, Bend Public Works Director Ken Fuller said. About a month ago, the engine died in one of the buses, and it has sat idle ever since.

“I don’t think we’ve had six on the road since the kickoff,” Fuller said.

In December, The Bulletin reported that mileage numbers recorded in Utah were far higher than what Transit Sales International reported to the city.

More than a month ago, the city’s police department launched an investigation into the discrepancy in the mileage of the buses.

Police Chief Andy Jordan said motor vehicle records in both California and Utah show mileage numbers higher than what was on the odometers of two of the buses when they arrived in Bend.

One of the buses had almost 200,000 more miles on it than was reflected on the odometer. The other bus had mileage that was off by 15,000 miles, Capt. John Maniscalco said.

Jordan said the city is still investigating whether the difference in mileage was due to a paperwork error, mechanical malfunction or the criminal act of turning back the odometer.

Both Jordan and Maniscalco said this is the first case they have dealt with in their lengthy careers where someone potentially rolled back an odometer. The act is both a state and federal offense.

“You don’t really hear about it anymore,” Maniscalco said.

Jordan noted that the city has talked with the district attorney about the case. Maniscalco said it can be hard to do a criminal investigation on instances where the speed odometer was rolled back.

“These are really difficult in (figuring out) who did it and how it was done,” Maniscalco said. “It is really deciding on where you want to spend your investigative research.”

Going to court?

An easier venue could be in civil court.

The city wants to wait until the police department’s investigation is finished before filing a lawsuit, Hummel said. An act such as rolling back an odometer could bring the city three times the amount of its damages in a civil lawsuit, said Hummel, who is a defense attorney.

“This is outrageous conduct,” Hummel said. “No doubt, it is wrong.”

When asked if the city would sue, Mayor Bruce Abernethy said the city would “absolutely initiate that process.”

“Clearly we were taken advantage of, and we want to pursue every option we can to get our money back and to get our good name back,” Abernethy said.

Even before the new bus system launched, the city had been in negotiations with the company to be reimbursed for maintenance expenses.

Fuller said that along with $20,000 the city has spent on routine maintenance and another $50,000 to get the buses ready for use, the city spent $50,000 on fixes that should have been covered by the company’s warranty.

In a letter dated Dec. 29, Fuller informed the company that $50,000 had been spent on repair work that should have been covered under the warranty. The city also stated that false representations the company made about the buses’ mileage, vehicle history and condition diminished their value by about $190,000.

“The city of Bend has the right to initiate legal action in the Circuit Court of Deschutes County, Oregon and will do so unless we are able to reach an accommodation,” the letter reads.

According to an e-mail from city attorney Jim Forbes, the company “denied liability of any kind, but invited the city to submit any evidence of damages the city sustained and they said they would be willing to discuss it.”

Fessing up

While the city is contemplating legal action, staff members also have begun owning up to mistakes made during the purchase of the buses and their failure to catch the mileage discrepancies. And with those admissions come promises that the city will do better.

“I am the director of public works and responsible for these buses,” Fuller said, and noted that the city will do “a flat-out better job of due diligence.”

The next time the department purchases used equipment, Fuller said, it would better track maintenance records, get all the vehicle’s documents before having them delivered to Bend and research the performance history of the make and model of the vehicles.

“We’ve made a mistake and we are trying to make the best of it,” Fuller said.

City manager Andy Anderson also acknowledged the city’s blunders. In the past, Anderson said the city has bought much of its used equipment locally and it has never had any issue with the purchasing process.

“We just didn’t do as good of job of due diligence as we should have done,” Anderson said. “However, that doesn’t take away from (the company’s mistakes).”

Stirring the pot

The issue of the six blue buses exploded at a City Council meeting Wednesday night after Anderson told councilors that the number of riders continues to climb.

Anderson said the city was transporting four times as many people under the new system as it did with its on-demand call service that was operating before the transit system was launched in September.

Councilor Mark Capell, who was elected to the City Council after the city purchased the buses, said he thought the city should publicly acknowledge where it went wrong and what it is going to do about the problem.

“I think that it is time for the city to step in front of the bus,” Capell said.

Capell said he was tired of getting hammered by the public on the issue.

“It seems like the kind of thing everyone brings up,” Capell said Thursday. “It’s ‘what were they thinking?’ And it’s time to tell them what we were thinking.”

His comments Wednesday launched a debate among councilors about whose fault it was the city purchased the buses.

Hummel at the meeting called the company lying crooks. He told the rest of the City Council that the city shouldn’t settle the case and should push for getting “every cent back.”

“We got ripped off and the taxpayers ought to know we are going to sue them,” Hummel said.

Councilor and former Mayor Bill Friedman defended the city’s decision to purchase the buses, saying without them the city would have had to wait a year or more to start the bus system if they had purchased new buses.

“We need to keep it in perspective,” Friedman said. “If we had gone with the choice of waiting a year or two years to buy buses, we wouldn’t have the ridership we have today.”

During the same debate, some councilors criticized The Bulletin’s coverage of the issue and its editorials on the subject.

Hummel called the editorials “yellow journalism” and advocated giving the paper “the finger.” Friedman said The Bulletin hadn’t done its homework in seeing what other cities spend per mile to maintain buses and how Bend compared. Abernethy said the city hadn’t been treated fairly.

“They’re poisoning the rest of the citizens’ perception of the city,” Abernethy said.