Ten years ago, Kansas City’s auditor released a scathing report criticizing the way the city purchases goods and services.
The audit was ordered after a bitter fight over a document management contract. There were charges of secret backroom deals, improper interference and corruption.
“The city’s process to recommend a vendor … was conducted poorly at all stages,” the auditor found.
Those words will sound familiar to anyone who has followed the city’s recent effort to hire a developer for a new airport terminal.
Procurement sounds wonky, important only to bureaucrats and reporters. In fact, though, an open, fair procurement process is essential: Not only does it provide taxpayers with quality projects at the lowest cost, it also assures them decisions are made professionally, based on facts, not politics.
Last Thursday, the Kansas City Council picked Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate to finance, design and build the new Kansas City International Airport terminal. Many applauded the choice, but even they will likely admit the process was chaotic and far too politicized.
That’s why City Hall should seize the chance to learn lessons from the airport battle. The council should ask the auditor to undertake a thorough review of the Edgemoor choice. The audit should include a series of recommendations for improving the process in the future.
The study should not point fingers, or assign blame or seek to embarrass council members, city staff or any of the airport bidders. Instead, it should compare the procurement process with best practices and identify ways to make it better in the future.
Here are some issues to consider.
▪ Procurement transparency: Many of the problems surrounding the airport procurement process stemmed from the early decision to endorse a secret, sole-source, no-bid agreement with Burns & McDonnell.
In 2008, the auditor said that was the wrong approach. “Make a public announcement of the solicitation in a manner that reasonably ensures that those who might be qualified to compete can learn of the solicitation and respond to it,” the study recommended.
▪ Deadlines and negotiations: Was the airport decision unnecessarily rushed? If so, why? What was the impact of the short time frame for studying the bids and picking a winner?
▪ The role of the selection committee: No one expects any city council to rubber-stamp the choice of a procurement selection committee. At the same time, the council owes broad deference to the decisions of those who have closely studied a procurement offer.
▪ The role of losing bidders: Council members insist they weren’t lobbied by AECOM after Edgemoor was selected. But there’s apparently no prohibition against losing bidders talking to interest groups like labor and minority contractors, who then put pressure on council members.
Voters should always have the right to contact council members to share their concerns. But there may be a best practice that limits organized post-selection pressure campaigns.
“The contracting culture of the city needs to be strengthened from the top down,” Kansas City’s auditor said in 2008. It’s still true.
The City Council should study the airport process to understand how to accomplish that goal.