Mayor Kenney and some on City Council want to upend the city's competitive bidding process, a bad move that could open the floodgates to influence peddling and higher prices.
If approved, a Council bill would water down the decades-old requirement that companies given contracts for goods, construction, and other services be the "lowest responsible bidder." The measure would allow for low bidders to be pushed aside for those offering the "best value," based on past history and quality of work.
That sounds like a lot of wiggle room for contracts to go to the best connected. If the city wants the "best value," it should include those criteria in specifications. If bidders don't meet the specifications, the city is free to throw out bids and start again. That gives all potential bidders the same opportunity to meet requirements.
The Kenney administration says the city wants to use vendors that don't have a history of missing deadlines or submitting change orders, ultimately costing more money. But it should disqualify vendors that can't do the job right.
This legislation allows far too much subjectivity and creates an unlevel playing field for all bidders. A big concern, as any student of Philadelphia history knows, is the potential for cronyism, pay-to-play politics, and pin-striped patronage.
The legislative package's prime sponsor is Councilman Bobby Henon, who has kept his silence since the summer when a parade of federal agents carted boxes of documents from his office. Cosponsors include Derek Green, Mark Squilla, Cherelle Parker, Curtis Jones, and Kenyatta Johnson, whose name reportedly has come up in an FBI investigation of land deals.
Council shouldn't be insensitive to legitimate concerns about past pay-to-play practices in Philadelphia. Recent history is replete with stories of city officials who have done time for corruption. The city has made strides to clean up its reputation and does not need to go back to its old ways.
Philadelphia is on the eve of a $600 million project to refurbish parks, libraries, and recreation centers. That's a lot of money sloshing around to impact the quality of life in neighborhoods across the city. The qualitative considerations that should matter the most are that these projects employ the highest standards possible for materials, workmanship, safety, and ethical behavior. Otherwise, Kenney's visionary idea could become another boondoggle.
The FBI is already busy with investigations apparently concerning local electricians union boss John Dougherty, a major supporter of Kenney's mayoral campaign. Other reported probes include District Attorney Seth Williams' campaign coffers and questionable land deals coming out of City Hall. If the bidding bill passes, federal agents may need to beef up their staffing.
It's fine to make the bidding system more efficient, but this isn't the way to do it. If the city wants higher quality goods and services, it should ask for them. Giving so much flexibility and using such subjective standards draws too much suspicion that insiders will reap out-sized benefits, and raises the so far unanswerable question of best value for whom?