The Mt. Diablo Unified School District has backed away from plans to award a no-bid $70 million solar project to Chevron Energy Solutions and instead will request proposals for the taxpayer-funded project.
The decision comes after the Times raised questions about secret meetings between the district's superintendent and Chevron. The Concord-based district said this week that on Aug. 2 it would advertise its request for proposals, a step toward a formal bidding. Chevron Energy Solutions, a San Francisco-based subsidiary of the San Ramon oil giant, had spent 18 months pursuing a no-bid contract for the district project, Chevron spokeswoman Juliet Don said. Some of the meetings with Chevron officials were held at the Walnut Creek home of Superintendent Steven Lawrence.
A state law allows public agencies to sign no-bid contracts for energy projects, and Chevron Energy Solutions has been the recipient of several such contracts, including solar deals at the Peralta and Chabot-Las Positas community college districts. In a written statement Thursday, Don said, "We respect any decision they reach." Most Mt. Diablo board members said they were unaware of the private meetings between Lawrence and Chevron officials "It was a matter of convenience," Lawrence said Thursday. "It was information gathering." Lawrence said he has met with no other companies at his home. He said he could not remember which Chevron officials attended the meetings, and a Chevron spokeswoman declined to provide names. Paul Strange, Mt. Diablo's board president, did not return phone messages left at his Walnut Creek law office.
Board member Gary Eberhart, who has been involved in the solar discussions, said he was unavailable because of a family medical emergency. Other board members said they had not been aware of the extent of the discussions between the district and Chevron. Trustee Linda Mayo said Lawrence told her about the home meetings recently. "I don't know that the meetings were inappropriate," she said. "Perhaps the location could have been better." Trustee Sherry Whitmarsh is a Chevron employee and said she has recused herself from discussions about the project. Board member Dick Allen also said he has not spoken to Chevron officials, but noted that a Chevron Energy Solutions representative attended a party celebrating the passage of Measure C. Lawrence defended the meetings, saying no final decisions were made behind closed doors. "Anything we do gets publicly vetted at a board meeting," he said. The home meetings did not appear to violate any laws, but there is no reason Lawrence could not have met Chevron officials at a restaurant or at his office, said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "It's a little strange," Stern said. "The question is why. What was he trying to hide?"
The 51-site solar project, billed by some at the district as the largest K-12 school installation in the country, will be financed through Measure C. The $348 million bond measure — which will cost taxpayers an estimated $1.8 billion over 42 years — was approved by voters in the Mt. Diablo district last month. The superintendent declined to say why Mt. Diablo leaders had opted to change course from their nearly exclusive negotiations with Chevron, but the decision came as Bay Area News Group questioned the close ties between the district and Chevron. In regards to whether the public's perception of a potential no-bid contract played a role, Lawrence said perception "factors into every decision we make."
The law exempting energy projects from bidding requirements was passed by the Legislature in 1983. Its author, then-Assemblyman Gray Davis, said recently that he thinks the exemption has outlived its purpose and should be repealed. At least one current lawmaker, Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, has said he may propose such a change in the coming legislative session. Public agencies have used the exemption to push through solar projects more quickly than the bidding process allows. Recent changes to the California Solar Initiative, which gives rebates to customers who install solar panels, gave agencies more time to complete projects.
Officials throughout the state said Chevron often tries to persuade school districts to sign no-bid contracts. In most cases, the company walks away from districts that open a bidding process because Chevron's prices are usually higher than those at other companies, said Don, the company spokeswoman.
Earlier this year, Chevron commissioned an informational report on using bonds to pay for solar projects, according to Green Technology, which published the report. The paper was sent to school districts throughout the state, but it did not advocate the use of a specific company. Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 925-943-8246. Follow him at Twitter.com/mattkrupnick.