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Transparency is key to landing best bids

Home rule, where local government knows best, is usually the mantra of conservative Republicans.

Much has been written recently about a state bill to “open up” the contracting process of the city. A bill introduced in this legislative session would allow cities other than Indianapolis to send out requests for proposals, known as RFPs, rather than require local governments stick to a straight bidding process for trash collection and disposal services. There are merits to both processes; the real value comes from how well the local officials keep the system transparent and open.

A Jan. 16 column about local government control and government’s ability to manage its own contracts (“Bidding process may go out with the trash”) bears some background. Government, even local government, spends millions of our tax dollars every year, and transparency and oversight are the keys to a fiscally sound and responsible process.

Many government agencies may decry the process of putting their need for a service or product up for straight bid because of concern that the lowest price, and thus the winning vendor, may result in our buying a product filled with lead paint from overseas. The alternative has been to objectively control this process by instead asking for requests for proposal. In that situation, the government can appear to allow all vendors to bid, but will only consider those proposals it deems valid.

Alternatively, government asks for straight bids but places much thought and consideration into the specifications needed for the desired product, so that only those suppliers that have the right product or service can bid.

While I was on City Council, I worked with, voted on and passed contracts entered into in both fashions. The most important point is the transparency of the process.

Fort Wayne enjoys an efficient garbage pickup and disposal system because we put all these contracts out to bid instead of agreeing to the administration’s original request to give it to a company that “successfully” answered its RFP.

Citizens will remember that we used to have curbside recycling pickup that we paid for in addition to our weekly garbage pickup. We had been told we lost money on those recyclables. After City Council insisted on rebidding the garbage contract, we found that not only did our costs go down, but also we are now actually making money on our recyclables. And all that money is deposited into a separate garbage and waste fund thanks to legislation I initiated so that it could be directly used to reduce future garbage fees. We were able to craft a well-defined “service,” garbage and recycling pickup, that was clear enough that we had six companies bidding.

RFPs may allow city employees to assess these proposals privately before bringing them for City Council approval. Straight-bid projects can result in flawed product. Both systems work well if the process is open and transparent.

If an RFP is requested, let’s make sure the vetting process is done publicly. If a straight-bid approach is used, then government must do its due diligence ahead of time, as we did with our garbage contracts, so that the quality of the winning bid does not harm our citizens. If we follow these guidelines, then regardless of the process used, the taxpayers win.

Liz Brown is a former Fort Wayne city councilwoman and a candidate for the GOP nomination for Indiana Senate District 15. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.