Burns & McDonnell’s very public campaign to win the competition to build a new Kansas City airport terminal has taken a worrisome turn.
You may have seen a television commercial or heard a radio ad touting the company’s plans for a new facility at Kansas City International Airport. Perhaps you’ve read about the Burns & Mac news conferences announcing partners for the project.
Those efforts are meant to pressure City Council members, whose decision on the terminal contract should be based on facts, not on commercials and press releases.
Now, though, we’ve learned Burns & McDonnell wants to block potential subcontractors from joining any other design team while the city considers bids for the project.
Companies that want a piece of the project have been asked to sign a Burns & McDonnell contract on “an exclusive basis,” according to a copy of the agreement provided to The Star.
“No Party shall directly or indirectly participate in, or contribute to, proposals … submitted for this Project by potential competitors,” it says.
The gambit seems squarely aimed at companies run by minorities and women, known as MBE and WBE firms. In its request for airport proposals, the city has asked for a major commitment to use such companies because minorities and women have sometimes been excluded from private construction projects.
While there are also stories of poor use of MBEs and WBEs in public projects, it’s essential to take steps to ensure that historically disadvantaged companies are included in the $1 billion KCI terminal project.
There are, however, a limited number of firms run by minorities and women in Kansas City. Burns & McDonnell is essentially trying to corner the market by locking up exclusive deals with these firms until a proposal is selected.
But it’s largely window dressing. The MBE and WBE firms with “exclusive” agreements will be allowed to partner with whichever bidder wins the terminal competition.
The deals simply allow Burns & Mac to present a longer list of MBEs and WBEs than any other bidder, a presumed political advantage.
The practice has frustrated AECOM and Turner Construction, which are expected to submit a joint proposal for the terminal. They’re not asking for exclusive agreements with any MBE or WBE partner.
“We are for inclusivity, not exclusivity,” a spokesman told The Star.
Burns & McDonnell has a right to protect proprietary information, and playing hardball politics in a high-stakes competition isn’t a novel strategy.
But the terminal selection committee and the City Council should ignore parts of any proposal, including Burns & Mac’s, that commit specific MBE and WBE companies to the project. Those firms can and will gravitate to the winning bidder, no matter who it is.
Instead, the city should set aggressive and firm numeric goals for MBE and WBE participation from all bidders, with significant penalties for falling short.
We want an airport competition that’s open and fair. Any attempt to game the contracting system by restricting options for MBE and WBE firms is unfortunate and unnecessary.
Companies that wish to bid on the terminal project must submit the first round of paperwork Thursday.
It isn’t clear how much detail will be made public that day, if any at all. And there are numerous signs the city may seek to keep much of the information private, hidden from reporters and members of the public.
That would be a mistake.
We know companies wish to protect trade secrets and design ideas. There are legitimate reasons not to release some parts of the responses.
But the City Council is expected to ask for a November vote on the terminal project. Voters will want as much detail as possible on cost, design, convenience, environmental impact and sustainability over time before casting those ballots.
Voters will also want to know how the winning bid was picked. They’ll want to compare financing plans and design proposals.
That means at least some details of all proposals should be made public.
Without that comparison, voters will simply have to trust City Hall to make the right decision. That’s a lot to ask, and a secret selection process isn’t a good way to kick off a campaign.
The Star wants transparency because we want to ensure a new airport terminal is approved. The city must pull back the curtain and conduct this important business in public.