Questions raised about exclusive contract between city of Alhambra and towing company

This Fall, Alhambra's City Council unanimously approved an exclusive police towing contract with Pavon Enterprises, more commonly known as Al's Towing, but not before residents and a rival towing company raised questions about the legality of this agreement.

On July 1, 2016, the city had extended its exclusive contract with Al's Towing, which had held the contract since 2009.

But Robert Ring, a lawyer for another Alhambra-based towing company, Henry's Towing, objected, arguing that granting an exclusive contract like this one was illegal. Ring cited the Alhambra city charter, Article XXI, Section 150, which says: "The council shall have power to designate the terms, conditions and duration of all franchises, subject to the general laws of the state and the provisions of this Charter relating thereto; provided, that no exclusive franchise shall ever be granted."

Ring said that Henry's Towing had wanted to bid for the contract, but did not have the opportunity. "Sometimes you have to work around laws," he said. "But just to wholesale ignore them is wrong. What's the point of having charters? What's the point of having laws?"

Alhambra City Attorney Joseph Montes declined to comment on whether the city charter supports such an agreement, saying that it would interfere with his ability to defend the city council.

A conflict of interest?

At the October City Council meeting when the new contract was approved, Alhambra resident Michael Lawrence said that Al's Towing had donated money to every current council member, implying that the entire council had a conflict of interest.

"Although this might not be illegal, this has the look of impropriety," Lawrence said during the public comment period.

Documents obtained by the Alhambra Source show each city council member receiving donations from Joe Pavon or Al's Towing from as early as 2004 and as recently as 2015. According to these monetary contribution records, Councilman Luis Ayala received $1,500, Stephen Sham $4,850, Steven Placido $4,000, Gary Yamauchi $8,980 and Barbara Messina $2,500.

Records also show that Henry's Towing donated $200 to Barbara Messina's campaign in 2007.

After Ring brought up his concerns, the city council revised the July 1, 2016 contract, to exclude a franchise fee of 15 percent of gross revenue that was originally in the document, and that had also been included in the 2009 contract. Originally, Al's Towing would have had to pay the city that fee.

Records show that since 2010, Al's Towing has given an average of almost $45,000 to the city in franchise fee revenue. During fiscal year 2015-2016, Al's Towing paid the city of Alhambra $50,247.46 in revenue.

At the October council meeting, resident Nick Aguirre asked why this franchise fee was now missing. "If Alhambra loses out on a yearly income of 15 percent, they lose out on a huge amount of money that could be used to improve our city, like more police officers," he said.

Montes, the city attorney, said that the city eliminated the fee in order to make it explicit that the contract with Al's Towing was an exclusive one. He added that the city's police department was satisfied with this towing company and preferred working with one company, making it easier to continue its relationship with Al's Towing, rather than putting the contract out for bid again.

Messina added that the City Council does review other applications, but goes with the bidder it believes will do the best job. "And because we have accepted donations from several people, that doesn't guarantee that we will support them," she told Lawrence. "Your painting all of us with a brush like that is really unfair."

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