It’s a given at Miami-Dade County Hall that when one bidder wins a big contract, the choice will be challenged by the losers. So it was inevitable that when CH2M Hill was awarded the lucrative $1.6 billion bid to act as the construction manager for the county’s massive sewage system overhaul the other bidder, AECOM Technical Services, would challenge that decision.
As usual, dueling lobbyists for both bidders began a war of words and persuasion. The ensuing brouhaha could have caused the whole bidding and selection process to be tossed and begun all over again — causing delays that would not be in the public interest.
The overhaul is the result of a consent decree among Miami-Dade and the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The county’s crumbling sewage pipes need replacement now, not in another two or three years.
Fortunately, county Mayor Carlos Gimenez has come up with a satisfactory solution to keep the project timeline moving forward. He will assemble a new selection committee and give the two bidders two more weeks to submit new material or substitute their prior proposals.
The dispute began when AECOM charged that its rival was allowed to directly contact selection committee members by submitting more than 400 pages of extra documents after both bidders’ final presentations. Direct contact after the submissions deadline is banned by a county rule known as the cone of silence.
But the situation wasn’t that simple, as Joe Centorino, executive director of the county’s Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, and interim Inspector General Patra Liu have both explained. The Ethics Commission reviewed the bidding process per a request from Mayor Gimenez.
The two additional CH2M emails sent to the selection committee were permissible given the way the rules for this contract were written, the ethics panel ruled. Still, said Mr. Centorino, the company’s communications “contributed to a serious public-trust problem with this solicitation.”
Mr. Centorino didn’t accuse CH2M Hill of any wrongdoing, instead blaming ambiguous county guidelines and a vague county solicitation document, which didn’t specifically prohibit direct contact with selection committee members or the additional submission. The county attorney’s office also ruled that CH2M adhered to county rules, and noted that AECOM was also given the opportunity to submit more materials, but declined to do so.
Still, Mr. Gimenez was troubled enough by the process to consider redoing it. In the end, he chose a wiser course, giving both bidders a second chance before a new audience.
But the perennial problem of losing bidders challenging almost every county contract selection process involving big money remains. While those whose bids are rejected have the right to question the process, such challenges can be costly in terms of money, time and erosion of public trust.
The county attorney’s office and the mayor should take a hard look at the selection-process rules to find ways to prevent such “flawed” decision-making situations in the future. They must ensure that bidding terms are crystal clear by avoiding ambiguous wording in requests for proposals and vagueness when writing rules for selection committees.
That will uphold the integrity in the business of county contracting and eliminate grounds for future challenges.