Business Leaders Should Demand County Contracts Reform
By Michael Lewis
When commissioners last week overrode Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s vetoes and handed an airport baggage-wrapping contract to the second-place bidder, they continued a long and not very proud tradition of contract meddling.
Commissioners should play no role at all in competitively-bid contracts. But they often do.
After county experts evaluate bidders on formal criteria, commissioners sometimes override the choices based on their own criteria, which to voters seem to be money, lobbyists and future elections.
We’re not accusing any commissioner of pay for play, the contract payoffs that land elected officials in hot water or cold cells. It just looks to the public like pay for play, which is equally bad.
Besides tarnishing the fragile image of commissioners, the dipping of their fingers into contracts deters some strong bidders, driving up prices the public pays as fewer firms compete.
The role of the commission is to establish policy. The role is not to decide who gets money under that policy.
Think about it: the legislature gets no say in Florida contracts; Congress gets no say in federal contracts. They make policy, not decisions about who wins bids under that policy.
Neither federal nor state procurement is perfect. But they do follow rules designed to level the playing field for bidders and yield the best bids for the public.
There can be no such level field in Miami-Dade as long as commissioners can overturn a contract for whatever reason they dream up at the moment.
The clear baggage-wrapping brouhaha, in fact, gives a whole new and ugly meaning to transparency in government.
The only reasons commissioners focus on such obscure decisions as baggage-wrapping contracts are bucks at election time, politics, friends and lobbyists, none of which should motivate county hall.
That’s why we should reform the charter to remove contracts from commission hands. Commissioners have no expertise and no reason to meddle Ð other than the wrong reasons.
The charter requires review every five years. But commissioners appoint a review team’s majority, and commissioners won’t willingly yield the power and money flowing from contracts.
Divorcing commissioners from contracts has been tried, but ineffectively.
Late in 2004, when Carlos Alvarez still wore a white hat as a new mayor and had just tossed all the lobbyists out of his office, he tried to end commission sway over contracts. He’d said in his campaign that doing so would streamline county business and reduce the influence of lobbyists.
Predictably, the commission was buying none of this. Mr. Alvarez was incapable of engineering the needed reform himself, so his effort died.
If commission and contracts were divorced, election campaigns would cost less because some big sources of funds would dry up. So would contract disputes that frequently sully commission reputations.
The biggest beneficiaries of contract reform would be the voters, but reputable companies that now won’t pay to play in county bidding would be right behind them.
Level the playing field and oust political advisors and lobbyists as paid coaches and more of our best businesses could benefit from county contracts Ð as would taxpayers as more competition cut costs.
Such opportunities should make chambers of commerce and the Beacon Council salivate at the chance to upgrade the business climate. It would be optimal if they got hungry enough to unite for contract reform, which is unlikely to ever come out of a commission-controlled charter review.
Only a business drive for a ballot initiative is likely to make this happen.