Bill would undo ruling on public contract bids.

 
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Byline: Kevin Featherly

Before the concept popped up in a 2015 state Supreme Court ruling, few thought that a city's denial of a public-contract bid protest was a quasi-judicial decision.

"I've been doing bid protests for 30 years on and off," said longtime public-procurement lawyer Tom Vollbrecht, a shareholder with Fabyanske Westra Hart & Thomson. "That's just not an issue anyone raised that I'm aware of."

But once then-Supreme Court Justice David Stras identified the city of Rochester's denial of its former bus company's bid challenge as a quasi-judicial decision, Vollbrecht and his fellow members of the Minnesota State Bar Association's construction law section started considering how to react.

Their answer was a bill that is winding its way through the Legislature garnering a unanimous 66-0 vote of the Minnesota Senate on April 8. That bill, Senate File 588, now awaits House floor action.

It is straightforward legislation, said Vollbrecht, who testified on the bill's behalf before the Senate Judiciary committee on March 5. It simply says that, when a procurement or construction project bid is challenged, the case should be filed in local District Court not the appellate courts, as Stras instructed.

"The Court of Appeals is a wonderful institution," Vollbrecht said. "But bid protests are matters that often get resolved within a matter of days or weeks. And attempting to get something in front of the Court of Appeals and to get a decision in a matter of days or weeks is unlikely."

Case background

The case in question, Rochester City Lines v. City of Rochester, involved a contractor that ran Rochester's city buses for decades. But in 2011, federal rules changed. They now required cities to engage in competitive bidding to qualify for federal transit funds.

So in 2012, competitive bids for the local bus contract were opened and the incumbent bus company, Rochester City Lines, lost its contract to another company, First Transit Inc.

Rochester City Lines protested the bid award, but city officials denied its protest and moved on. The company then sued, but lost a District Court summary judgment. It appealed to the Court of Appeals and lost again. The case then went to the Supreme Court.

The high court reversed in part. It said the District Court was right to grant the city summary judgment on questions over whether the city's request for proposals contained "unlawful terms" or whether an "organizational conflict of interest" invalidated the...

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