by Jay A. McCalla

I enjoy writing and take pleasure in sometimes creating a fun, leisurely paragraph. But my goal here is to sound a screeching alarm that, hopefully, can wake the dead. So, let me hop to it.

Right now, City Council is considering a measure that would dramatically expand political influence over how city contracts are awarded by eliminating the “lowest bidder” provision of the City Charter. That venerated, anti-corruption safeguard would be replaced with an arguable, subjective standard called “best value.”

“Best value” establishes a list of additional factors that can be considered in the awarding of a city contract. Those additional factors may or may not be smart things to consider. But they definitely make the award of a contract a matter of argument. By destroying the “lowest bidder” standard, Council Majority Leader Bobby Henon (it’s his idea) is swinging open the door to political pressure in an arena that has been remarkably free of it.

The millions upon millions of dollars we spend on professional services are not competitively bid. This allowed Kenney to simply hand Ken Trujillo, a big campaign donor, an $800,000 contract. Both Kenney and Trujillo would claim to be more pure than Caesar’s wife in this transaction, but it fits the definition of “pay to play.”

If Henon gets his way, there won’t be a single city contract awarded without “argument” and the potential for decisive political intervention. This is particularly scary, considering the mayor plans to issue $600 million in contracts to renovate parks, recreation centers and libraries. Without the objective standard of “lowest bidder,” this dazzling honey pot will be awarded on the basis of “additional considerations.” Cynics might think the move to amend the charter is in ANTICIPATION of this cascade of cash. A heist in the making.

This very bad idea might be a wee bit less threatening if it weren’t sponsored by Henon, a man of dubious reputation whose home and office were recently raided by the FBI. Both he and his chief of staff have retained legal representation in the probe.

Henon is part of a crew, led by Labor Leader John Dougherty, that has exerted consistent influence over Jim Kenney (who unsurprisingly supports Henon’s scheme) since the day he announced for mayor. Case in point: Kenney appointed Doc’s chiropractor to chair the Zoning Board, only to have him later raided by the FBI looking for evidence of extortion.

Dougherty himself is the object of intense FBI scrutiny resulting in the raid of his home, office, bar, shore house and sister’s house.

Any legislation that guts transparency and objectivity from our procurement process has to be viewed with suspicion and alarm, particularly when it emanates from such an unhygienic place.

Henon says this is a “reform” that will “modernize” our procurement process and provide “additional choices.” Having never before used the term “hogwash,” this is my moment.

I oversaw $120 million in demolition contracts for the Street administration and can tell you the “lowest bidder” provision made me a “corruption free zone” in an environment where the City Treasurer was headed to prison and the FBI saw fit to place a listening device in the mayor’s office.

While political malefactors may have their lustful eyes set on the short term goal of “steering” the $600 million, this is a change that will make more steep our downward ethical trajectory for decades to come, at least.

The motivation to debase our procurement process is compelling. The ability to dispense juicy construction contracts, fleet purchases, maintenance services, etc. to donors will radically expand Kenney’s – and future mayors’ – ability to raise money.

The ability to steer contracts can, additionally, be used to punish non-union employers.

This “reform” will likely INCREASE costs for taxpayers by creating an army of politically connected contractors who won’t need to “sharpen their pencils” before bidding and will have increased freedom in submitting “change orders” – price increases – once the contract is underway.

With six co-sponsors, Henon’s measure already has 70 percent of the votes needed for passage and should gain Council approval before Christmas. The final decision to remove the “lowest bidder” provision from the City Charter will come before voters in May 2017.

Searching for encouragement, I recalled Mayor Nutter’s determination in his last year to commit the city to spend almost $500 million on a new prison. The scheme would have provided tons of union work, bucks for law firms and profit for contractors.

A narrow public outcry derailed the plan at its initial step: land acquisition.

If, as it seems, this is “a heist in the making,” a civic and editorial outcry is warranted on the scale that produced our “lowest bidder” standard back in 1952. Collectively, we must tell our politicians “we see what you’re doing and we want you to stop.`

Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.

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