Sunday, December 7, 2008

Relativity of No Bid and Low Bid Contracts

Greg Harton uses his column in the Northwest Arkansas Times today to pontificate against No-Bid Contracts. No, not like the ones Mayor Coody signs at every opportunity with his approbation, but the ones that the University of Arkansas almost always gives to trusted friends at Nabholz Construction instead of to the lower bidders. The state's 1874 Constitution prohibits county governments from doing deals with No-Bid contracts; it is silent on whether such potentially shady deals can be made by city or state governments.

"The no-bid contracts may be legal. We’ll see," says Harton. "But our lawmakers are doing the public a disservice if they allow these types of contracts to exist without full, all-out transparency about where tax dollars are being spent and whose getting the money." He is right, of course, just as when he says, "Transparency is the best defense against unethical or even illegal behavior in government. People want to be able to see how decisions about public matters are made and how their tax money is being spent." That's well and good, but it is hardly enough to save the taxpayers' money from being wasted.

Harton doesn't say that government should take the low bid for goods or services. In fact, when The Morning News submitted the low bid for running the City of Fayetteville's legal and display ads, the editors of the Northwest Arkansas Times squealed like a pig. They wanted that advertising revenue for themselves, even if it would cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars more each year. "To put it simply," they complained, "the fundamental question is this: When it comes to public notices, does the city of Fayetteville want the best chance for the public to see its ads, or does it want to opt for a cheap option without regard for whether any significant numbers will ever see important notices?"

Then the editors got some home cooking from Kit Williams, the legal genius who now says the Council can't consider the forking they got from developers in the past and that Citizen Forums are unconstitutional. "We are Fayetteville’s newspaper. As we work daily at our headquarters at 212 N. East Ave., not a stone’s throw from the City Administration Building, we’re proud to publish this community’s newspaper every day. And we appreciate recognition of that by City Attorney Kit Williams, who ... issued a memo stating that only the Northwest Arkansas Times 'meets the statutory requirement of being published in the municipality,' language found in the state law that dictates how cities must place their legal ads."

Excuse us while we call bullshit on that. Both papers are owned by rich folks in Little Rock, and neither is printed in Fayetteville. Both papers have offices within two blocks of each other where reporters and editors do their best. To claim that the Times has greater circulation is to ignore that you cannot unsubscribe from the Times and still get the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It is almost like a "shopper" in that regard, a freebee thrown in whether you read it or not.

Greg Harton's high principles on No Bid contracts ring hollow. When they say it's not about the money, it's always about the money. The Northwest Arkansas Times editorial against awarding contracts to the low bidder proves that in black and white, even if not read.

The city could save a bundle if they printed their notices in The Morning News. They could save even more by just posting the notices on their own website or sending blast email alerts. But, it is about the money -- and about which Little Rock publishing corporation gets to fatten on our tax dollars. Neither has offered to inform the public as a public service or give news coverage to this information allegedly so important that it must be published.

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